LADY ANTEBELLUM 'Need You Now'
3 stars Capitol Nashville
In today's real American South, Jell-O shots are just as prevalent as Jack Daniels, and a game gal like Hillary Scott is as likely to lust after a guy "in black pearl buttons, lookin' just like Springsteen" as she is a Johnny Cash type. After all, the New Jersey rocker copped his style partly from the Man in Black.
Lady Antebellum - the rising country-pop trio in which Scott shares vocal duties with the perpetually pearl-buttoned Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood, who handles background vocals and guitar - is a product of the post-Faith and Tim New South of two-career marriages and relatively guilt-free premarital hook-ups. But its impressively well-considered second album reveals a connection to the craftsmanship and flair for sordid detail that's served country artists since the heyday of George and Tammy and Dolly and Porter.
Country music always has been about the collision between contemporary life and the old ways. Lady Antebellum updates the genre's formulas in the usual manner, spicing them up with rock riffs and unapologetic lustiness. What's most interesting about "Need You Now," which already has spawned a huge hit with its title track, is the album's focus on one timeworn theme: regret. This young band is making some old-soul music, dressed up in the latest fashions.
That title song raises the album's curtain and dictates the terms. It's maybe the most romantic song ever written about a drunken booty call. Singing about the draw of an old beau on a lonely night, Scott is emotional but not too dramatic: a Carrie Bradshaw type, making do with diminished expectations. Answering her, Kelley sounds more old-fashioned. He croaks, he growls, he spits out the crow he's eating.
The song's effective arrangement - Lady A, as the trio is known, co-wrote this track and most of the others here, and co-produced the album with Paul Worley — updates the sound of heartache, as a minimalist New Age piano couplet echoes over some classic soft-rock guitar.
Beyond the title track, "Need You Now" keeps exploring the subtleties of the sadder but maybe-wiser life. "American Honey" wallows in nostalgia. "Love This Pain" is a romantic masochist's lament. "Hello World" presents a full-on midlife crisis; Kelley hams it up, though he misses the chance to do a Porter Wagoner-style recited verse.
The group's extremely solid, polished sound leaves little room for fanciful flights, but despite the slickness of the arrangements, Lady A delivers an emotional punch.
CORINNE BAILEY RAE 'The Sea'
4 stars Capitol
Anyone who's been through a serious loss knows about the baffling part: After it's over, you are still you. You are you, plus the loss, plus the pain and confusion the loss causes. The process of healing isn't really a matter of "getting over it" - taking it in is what's necessary, incorporating what's been felt and learned and figuring out how to be the person you've always been is what's different now.
"The Sea," Corinne Bailey Rae's sometimes hard to absorb but ultimately deeply rewarding second album, is about that process. Rae's husband, saxophonist Jason Rae, accidentally overdosed on methadone and alcohol in March 2008. Rae grieved for him by doing nothing for months, then returned to making music.
Though she's known for the kind of delicacy that's often dismissed as "lite" — her 2006 self-titled debut was a careful exploration of the feminine psyche set within arrangements that melded Laurel Canyon folk with early-1970s boho soul - Rae searches for the pinpricks and love sighs that intensify gentle emotions. On "The Sea," her carefulness complicates what might have been a blunt expression of pain.
The album begins with one of Rae's patented carefully plucked guitar chords and the line, "He's a real live wire." What a way to invoke a ghost. That first song, "Are You Here," captures the way that a dreaming mind can create happiness and how returning to reality is a landing with a thud. It's one of several songs that move in a circular fashion, like waves, like irresolvable emotion.
Several songs, including "Love's on Its Way" and "Diving for Hearts," unfold less neatly. They resist hooks and no one will dance to them. Tapping into elements of soul, jazz and even heavy rock, Rae stubbornly shapes these songs to conform to her wandering, insistent thoughts. They don't sound like what we're used to in pop right now; they're more like the mid-period work of Van Morrison and Nona Hendryx's songs for Labelle. Those artists formed their musical approaches within the soul idiom but demanded the freedom of voice and the chance to stretch in strange ways that rarely makes for hit singles.
Although Rae is famous for the more marketable charm of bouncy singles like the Grammy-nominated "Put Your Records On," she told interviewers that she hoped her next work would be more akin to the avant-pop of critical darling Joanna Newsom. It's cruel to say that her personal calamity might have bought her the chance to take that risk, but it does seem possible.
3 1/2 stars Because Music/Elektra Records
The third release from the French actress, Charlotte Gainsbourg's "IRM" is designed for hip, smart girls in crisis. Sultry rock with an existential edge, the intelligently composed songs flirt with catastrophe but never surrender.
Given the shabby-chic texture of the album, infused with folk and terse electronica, it's apparent that Beck produced, composed the music and co-wrote the lyrics. The elegance that served him well in "Modern Guilt" and "Sea Change" is an even better fit for Gainsbourg. But it's the singer's brush with death in 2007 from a water-skiing accident that substantiates the album's spectral mood. The title song, named for the French acronym for an MRI, thrums with heartbeat-like rhythms and buzzing monotones borrowed from the ER. She uses the medical lexicon to explore the psychedelic borders between the physical and the spiritual.
Throughout the follow-up to her 2006 album, "5:55," Gainsbourg never sounds out of her element. "Trick Pony" rumbles like some nasty love child of Jon Spencer and Goldfrapp circa 2003's "Black Cherry," yet Gainsbourg rides it with gracefully lean vocals. On the enigmatic "Me and Jane Doe," she meditates on a desert landscape that could be read as the Wild West of the afterlife.
Gainsbourg seems to intimately understand that the lines of existence, like the lines of genre or tone, can never truly be known, but yet she's at home wherever she goes.
LADY ANTEBELLUM 'Need You Now'