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Inside Music: New This Week
Tim McGraw, 'Sundown Heaven Town'
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There's no question Tim McGraw seized upon the opportunity to indulge his every whim when he finally extricated himself from Curb and signed with Big Machine in 2013, the year where "Two Lanes of Freedom" revived his career. His renaissance continues with 2014's "Sundown Heaven Town," his second album for Big Machine and a record that often plays like a direct sequel to its predecessor in that it's designed to show off everything McGraw and his longtime collaborator/producer Byron Gallimore can do. Being that this follows a record where the big hit was a ballad -- the haunting "Highway Don't Care," a duet with Taylor Swift -- it's not entirely a surprise that "Sundown Heaven Town" is distinguished by its smooth touch but within that gloss. Sure, McGraw never goes for a brawny rocker -- when Kid Rock stops by for a duet on the deluxe, it's for an easy-rolling, sunny ballad called "Lincoln Continentals and Cadillacs" -- and the quickest pace is reserved for glistening midtempo pop like "City Lights," but this record never seems to drag, not even in its longer 18-track incarnation, because McGraw and Gallimore are masters at pacing, something that is evident on individual songs as it is on the album as a whole. McGraw knows when to shift away from the spacious arena-country of "Shotgun Rider" to the light electronic accents of "Dust," then to glide into the modernized southern soul of "Diamond Rings and Old Barstools" or when to get delicate, as he does on the sentimental (but not sappy) "Meanwhile Back at Mama's." This versatility isn't showy, which is a large part of McGraw's charm: he has an easy touch that not only warms the sheen of his gloss, it hides the meticulousness of his craft. He's wound up making records that are the new millennial equivalent of classic soft rock, records informed by the trends of the day but which place emphasis on melody and craft, which is why they resonate: they come on smooth and easy but have the foundation to last. -- Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide
 
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Chris Brown, 'X'
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Over two years in the making, a period that involved a multitude of revisions and delays, anger management therapy, drug rehabilitation, and a jail stay for parole violation, "X" surfaced as Chris Brown's sixth full-length studio release in September 2014. In a way, the album is a corrective. The influence of European dance-pop, which resulted in some of Brown's most forgettable material on Fortune, is all but eliminated in favor of contemporary R&B and pop productions that tend to suit the singer better. Brown does maintain his bad boy image. It's on typically full display in the chintzy "Loyal" -- its hook a misogynist pleonasm -- and the part-clever/part-nonsensical string of R. Kelly quotes that is the Trey Songz duet "Songs on 12 Play" ("And I'm feelin' on yo booty, drivin' me crazy, half on a baby"). On "Drown on It," the pied piper of R&B himself joins in, and he and Brown dole out an unsurprisingly cartoonish variety of metaphorical and/or explicit come-ons that include "Just like a male mermaid, baby." Brown combines memorable hooks with some stellar production work on the rubbery disco-funk of "Add Me In" (courtesy of Danja) and the blithe, swaying "Time for Love" (a collaboration with Jean Baptiste and Free School). In these and a few other songs, romantic affection, expressed with seemingly genuine sweetness, takes precedence over sexual aggression and petulance. More importantly, Brown's voice, still boyish, sounds most natural and full of life in these settings. Additional guest appearances come from Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, Usher, Tyga, Akon, and Kendrick Lamar, but Brown's lone spot reserved for a woman is his best collaboration here. On the darker but no less striking "Do Better," he and Brandy continue a fruitful association that previously resulted in the Top Five R&B hit "Put It Down" and the phenomenal Two Eleven album cut "Slower." It's one of the more compelling R&B duets of its time, with their vulnerable confessions as sharp as their aspersions. -- Andy Kellman, All Music Guide
 
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Barbra Streisand, 'Partners'
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Barbra Streisand's 2014 duets album, "Partners," features the legendary vocalist performing songs associated with her storied career alongside a handful of handpicked guests. Produced by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Walter Afanasieff, "Partners" is a duets album in the modern tradition of such similarly inclined releases as Frank Sinatra's "Duets," Tony Bennett's "Duets: An American Classic," and Paul Anka's "Duets." The album also follows up Streisand's 2013 live concert recording "Back to Brooklyn." As with that album, "Partners" works as a retrospective, with Streisand revisiting songs she's recorded on past albums, such as her classic "Evergreen" from the soundtrack to her 1976 remake of A Star Is Born, performed here with Babyface. Also joining Streisand are such luminaries as Michael Bublé for "It Had to Be You," Stevie Wonder for "People," Billy Joel for "New York State of Mind," Andrea Bocelli for "I Still Can See Your Face," and others. John Mayer even brings along his guitar for a bluesy, Count Basie-inspired rendition of "Come Rain or Come Shine." With Edmonds and Afanasieff on board, the tracks on "Partners" showcase a pleasing balance between Streisand's various stylistic wheelhouses from Broadway standards, to adult contemporary pop, to classical crossover, and even a hint of country (as her duet with Blake Shelton reveals). While certainly a novelty, the digitally created, fan-service duet with the late Elvis Presley (Streisand's original choice of co-star for A Star Is Born) is tastefully and lovingly crafted. Ultimately, "Partners" works as guided tour down Streisand's memory lane, and with her resonant voice still in supple shape, any excuse to hear her sing is a welcome invitation. -- Matt Collar, All Music Guide
 
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Robert Plant, 'Lullaby And... The Ceaseless Roar'
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Returning to his native England after an extended sojourn in America, Robert Plant heavily reconnects with his homeland's mysticism on 2014's lullaby and... "The Ceaseless Roar." Despite the shift in geography, the singer is picking up a thread he left hanging with 2010's Band of Joy. On that album, Plant blurred boundaries between several musical styles, playing covers with a group assembled by producer Buddy Miller, but here he shifts that omnivorous aesthetic to a collection of originals performed with his ever-changing band the Sensational Space Shifters. Certain flourishes sound familiar -- he remains equally enamored of English and Moroccan folk while retaining an enduring obsession with American blues and psychedelia -- but the feel is different, not as robust as "Band of Joy" or warmly joyous as "Raising Sand." "The Ceaseless Roar" may not get loud -- usually, when it rocks it sounds like a kissing cousin to a folk rave-up; sometimes, as on "Somebody There," it's chiming, crystalline, and bright like the Byrds -- but it is intensely meditative, finding sustenance within mystery. Plant is reflecting on where he's been -- singing "And if the sun refuses to shine" on "Pocketful of Golden," he tips a hat to his Zeppelin past; elsewhere he speaks of getting lost in America -- yet gingerly avoiding questions of mortality and resisting the allure of easy sentimentality. It's possible to hear the weight of his years on lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar -- it is, in the best sense, mature music, dense in its rhythms and allusions, subtle in its melodies -- but he never feels weary, nor does he traffic in false nostalgia. He's building upon the past, both his own and the larger traditions of his homeland, both spiritual and actual, and that gives lullaby and... "The Ceaseless Roar" a bewitching depth. It's an album to get lost in. -- Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide

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Lee Brice, 'I Don't Dance'
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Lee Brice performed a rare feat in 2012: he became a star on the back of ballads, not party songs. Country has a long history of gentle, masculine crooners but the 2010s were rife with suburban dudes in tight jeans who sang slow songs only as a change of pace. Brice specialized in an assured delivery, taking such reflective songs as "Hard to Love" and "I Drive Your Truck" to the upper reaches of the country charts, and this success has led him to double down on deliberation on 2014's "I Don't Dance." There is some volume to the record and a considerable amount of sly electronic textures -- this especially surfaces in the rhythms, which are sometimes looped, although there's some playful Auto-Tune; the three bonus tracks on the deluxe edition emphasize this side -- but the defining characteristic of I Don't Dance is how unhurried Brice seems, lending the same casual authority to the faster or grittier numbers ("No Better Than This," "Drinking Class," or "Girls in Bikinis," which is just plain silly) as he does on the ballads. This relaxed confidence is beguiling and also suits the songs, which Brice largely had a hand in composing (only three of the 13 songs don't bear a songwriting credit from him). Without the liner notes, it's hard to tell which songs come from Brice's pen and which don't, but that only signals how cohesive the album is. As skilled and commercially savvy a writer as he is -- and he is, that's his background -- he keeps the focus on his performance, letting the album come on smooth and strong. "I Don't Dance" may sink its teeth in slightly slowly, but that's Brice's style: he lets the listener come to him and, once they're there, he offers a warm seduction that lasts not just for a night but for a relationship. -- Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide 

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