Katy B, Little Red (Columbia)
Don’t expect nonstop earworms from this equal parts club rat/academic, at least not of the ABBA or Carly Rae Jepsen variety. And don’t anticipate expert storytelling from Kathleen Anne Brien either, even if too many sources make that exact claim for this supposed farewell to club life. Fact is, Katy B hardly makes for a very interesting adult - we may spend more time inside her head than on the dancefloor this time out, but all that means is lots of nervous encounters, some mutually enjoyable sex, a few regrets as the dawn breaks, and enough references to recreational chemistry to suggest a mildly wild youth. Yet what she lacks in drama she more than makes up for in that most boring of adult attributes: consistency. Credit must be rendered unto her bevy of producers (Joker, Dream, Jacques Greene, George FitzGerald), all of whom supply the kinds of shifting synth patterns and house-derived beats that will bore dance underground experts and entice the rest of us. But the key ingredient here is her everywoman vocals, which help sell hooks that scan banal (“I like you a little bit”) or ludicrous (“that beat so sick/that tune so ill”). Her lack of bombast ensures the success of power ballad “Crying For No Reason,” and makes her duet with the always serene Jessie Ware a worthy ode to the dearly departed queen of restraint, Aaliyah. And if earworms are what you need, “5 AM” and “Everything” are good places to start.
Toni Braxton & Babyface, Love, Marriage & Divorce (Motown / Virgin EMI)
Wedding bell blues from a duo intimately familiar with the D word, even if the majority of these eleven songs smolder along with such tasteful quiet storm pulsation it’s easy to overlook their oft-bilious sentiments. Not that these marriages are all doomed - “Sweat” finds our protagonists working up exactly that as they choose a private bedroom session over the marriage counselor’s office. Yet note when Babyface murmurs “I’ll always love you” in the final moments, he’s dropping off the legal papers, and when Braxton avers she’d rather be broke, her punchline is “than be with you”. One reason these emotional set pieces avoid soap opera histrionics is a restrained production keeping just this side of tasteful (not even wind chimes and Babyface’s infernal acoustic guitar can chase away those tasty analog synth fills), never less than melodic even as the album’s middle section slows down precipitously before roaring back to life on disco jam “Heart Attack”. As for the two r&b lifers at the helm, they’ve internalized the power of understatement. Braxton maintains her dignity even while declaring over solo piano, “I hope she creeps on you with somebody who’s twenty-two”. And Babyface remains the kind of woman-friendly golden voice capable of delivering any line with charm, from “I never dreamed that you’d cheat on me” to “don’t act like you don’t want it again”.
Eric Church, The Outsiders (Capitol/EMI)
Unsupported boasts are pop music commonplaces, but it’s hard to recall another album as weighted down by claims of outsider exceptionalism with so little in the way of cold hard proof backing it up. So let’s examine the evidence. Is “Talladega” and its descriptors of fast cars and roman candles really any kind of departure for contemporary male country? Are Church’s “Dark Side” threats to puncture with bullets any drug-dealing thug making noise near his little boy much more than veiled shout-outs to George Zimmerman? Might his claims for what constitutes damn rock ‘n roll (“it’s a guy with the balls/to tell the establishment to go to hell”) be as woozily self-congratulatory as the Faith No More-inspired title track that quotes noted rebel Stephen Ambrose (“band of brothers”)? And even setting aside the one where he compares his penis to a wrecking ball because it sounds more romantic than “piledriver,” Church’s metaphors are obvious, even leaden, from broken records and roller coasters to an eight minute exegesis of Nashville as greedy slut. When he relaxes a bit, his thin drawl and eye for detail can still charm: the midlife acceptance of “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” almost conjures the calm of Willie Nelson, the beercan hokum of “A Cold One” meshes perfectly with its stomping horns, and “Give Me Back My Hometown” relies on specific memories of the girl he lost rather than sweeping Great Recession landscapes to tell its story. So he remains a notable voice. Loves rock and roll, too. But anybody claiming Church rocks harder for his time than Joe Diffie did for his is deploying selective memory.