For the record: new releases

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Records are rated on a scale of one (awful) to four (classic) stars.


Luke Bryan 'Crash My Party' (Capitol Nashville)

1 star = Awful
Ratings explained

Luke Bryan is country's hottest young male singer. Unfortunately, beyond the platinum singles and albums, Mr. Bryan, like Jason Aldean, Justin Moore and Jake Owen, symbolizes everything wrong with Nashville in 2013. "Doin' My Thing," his 2009 album, despite a few redeeming moments, suffered from an unfortunate mixture of bland, formulaic production by country rocker Jeff Stevens and generic songs that felt more manufactured than written.

The problem runs deeper. Some singers -- Kenny Chesney comes to mind -- can trump mediocre material with emotional, compelling vocals. With Mr. Stevens again producing, Mr. Bryan, known for his spring break tunes, delivers "Crash My Party's" 12 shallow throwaways with all the conviction of an anonymous singer recording demos of someone else's hacked-out songs, surrounded by regurgitated rock cliches.

Case in point: the shallow title song, about a guy more into his girlfriend than partying with buddies, detailing the ways she might get his attention (instead of just calling her himself). "I See You" tells a similarly forgettable tale of trying to shake a lost love.

As if going down a punch list, Mr. Bryan dutifully services four worn-out topics in vogue with male singers: trucks, hot girls, nostalgia and beer. "That's My Kind of Night" covers trucks. "Goodbye Girl" and "Beer in the Headlights" sing of hot girls while "We Run This Town" and "Blood Brothers" look nostalgically at teen life. The sole respite from mediocrity: "Drink a Beer," a thoughtful reflection on a friend's death. He co-wrote the autobiographical "Dirt Road Diary," but even there, his vocals lack power and conviction.

Mr. Bryan certainly has the fashionable image Music Row marketers demand from male singers, complete with the obligatory caps, jeans and T-shirts. But if great songs and emotion still matter in contemporary country -- and I think they do -- neither managed to crash this party.

-- Rich Kienzle, for the Post-Gazette


John Mayer 'Paradise Valley' (Columbia)

"Born & Raised" is far from a one-time venture; although it functions well as a variation on the many themes Mr. Mayer's developed over his career, now it's clear that he's going for broke with his love of country music, as well as California rock.

That relaxed, easy-breezily introspective style isn't even in vogue in country circles anymore, and among popular music rags there's a near vitriolic disdain for it. But of the many labels that Mr. Mayer fits well, it's unabashed, and with "Born & Raised" and now "Paradise Valley," he's plunged headfirst into that '70s California sound, wholeheartedly employing steel guitar, pull-off riffs and twang to create a laid-back record that pushes him further into territory that's leagues away from "Your Body Is a Wonderland."

-- Brice Ezell,



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