Justin Timberlake 'The 20/20 Experience' (RCA)
2 1/2 stars = Average
The track lengths suggest that the former 'N Sync frontman may have thrown it all away for a new jam-rock or prog career. Seven of the 10 songs stretch past the seven-minute mark, a bold move for an artist who could easily do a Bruno Mars and supply radio with wall-to-wall hits through March '14.
Although Timbaland is back at the controls, "20/20" is not another helping of 2006's "FutureSex/LoveSounds." This one is less aggressively future-sexy, more about letting JT vibe out, Prince-like, on mostly slow, soulful grooves with his thin but sweet falsetto.
They're nice, lushly produced tracks, with some worldbeat touches, especially on "Don't Hold the Wall," but JT isn't Prince, so the vocal and lyrical depth seldom justify the lengths. You might find yourself hitting the skip button a lot at the 5-minute marks as you work through "20/20."
Maybe he could have invited a few more guests to spice up this variably black-tie and bedroom affair. Jay-Z, of course, appears on the first single "Suit and Tie," but he's the only famous friend in the midst.
The mood is celebratory, from the haltingly funky love-as-drug opener "Pusher Love Girl" through the elegant "Suit and Tie," the sugary "Strawberry Bubblegum," the goofy interstellar romance of "Spaceship Coupe" and the poppy second single "Mirrors," reminiscent of that Chris Brown wedding song.
The nicest surprise is the arty, ambient closer, "Blue Ocean Floor," which tells us that Timbaland/Timberlake have some Radiohead/Bon Iver in their iPods as well. The vocal is so lovely here, not to mention the foggy underwater production, it could go on for another seven minutes and there'd be no complaint.
It looks like "20/20" will be the first of two albums he'll be dropping in 2013, so if this one isn't your speed, the good news is you won't have to wait till 2020 for the next one.
-- Scott Mervis, Post-Gazette
Ashley Monroe 'Like a Rose' (Warner)
3 1/2 stars = Very good
Ashley Monroe is one-third of the Pistol Annies, the formidable femme country trio featuring Miranda Lambert whose take-no-mess debut "Hell on Heels" was one of the standout releases of 2011. "Like a Rose" is technically her second album, though her 2009 debut, "Satisfied," was released only digitally and was effectively buried by what was then her record label, Columbia, which must be kicking itself now. That's because "Like a Rose," which was co-produced by Vince Gill, is the best collection of trad-country tunes by a Nashville major label in a dog's age.
Ms. Rose co-wrote the thorny title cut with Texas troubadour Guy Clark. At just 29 minutes, "Like a Rose" is lean on its bones. But each song is a keeper, from naughty honky-tonkers such as "Weed Instead of Roses" to expertly playful twists on country tropes such as "Two Weeks Late" and "She's Driving Me out of Your Mind." (Genius song title, that.) "Like a Rose" ends with a terrifically teasing duet with Blake Shelton, "You Ain't Dolly, And You Ain't Porter," mentioning a couple of old-school hard-country heroes whose music Ms. Monroe is proudly indebted to, while sounding utterly fresh.
-- Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer
Kevin Eubanks 'The Messenger' (Mack Avenue)
1 1/2 stars = Bad
Freed from the daily grind of "The Tonight Show," guitarist Kevin Eubanks slows down to release his second CD. The set, with saxophonist Billy Pierce playing a key role, covers a broad palette of musical flavors from funk to folk, from Jeff Beck's rocking "Led Boots" to a worldly take on John Coltrane's "Resolution" (with the bass sung by Take 6's Alvin Chea.) The outing is also surprisingly low-key, with four of 11 cuts in deep ballad mode.
Mr. Eubanks, an heir to one of Philly's great musical clans -- brothers Robin on trombone and Duane on trumpet both appear here -- is adept at making immediate connections with an audience. The L.A.-produced set could have gone so much mushier and commercial, but Mr. Eubanks keeps the standard high and ends up making a legit jazz session that both snarls and finds some beauty.
-- Karl Stark, The Philadelphia Inquirer