- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2011

Own The Night

Lady Antebellum

Capitol Records Nashville

★★★

Lady Antebellum’s last album was the sort of multi-platinum smash that keeps record labels in business. Although presumably aimed at a country audience, “Need You Now” wound up appealing to pop fans, too, selling more than 5 million copies in the process. Earlier this year, the title track - arguably the finest power ballad this side of 1989 - became the best-selling country song of all time.

So, when the time comes to follow a blockbluster album with something new, what’s a band to do? If you’re Lady Antebellum, you repeat the steps that got you there in the first place.

Keeping the band’s crossover appeal intact, “Own The Night” offers up the sort of “country” music that owes as much to pop songwriting as the familiar Nashville traditions. The production is perfect, polished to a crisp shine by longtime collaborator Paul Worley, who discovered the Dixie Chicks and worked on Lady Antebellum’s first two albums. The songs take the cake, though, from “Just a Kiss” - which has been a radio hit since May, drumming up anticipation for the album long before it was even finished - to “Somewhere Love Remains,” which helps close the album on a relaxed, midtempo note.

Vocal harmonies are everywhere, beefing up each chorus and rearing their melodic head in most of the verses, too. It’s hard to know who’s singing lead and who’s providing support; the harmonies simply sound collective, as though they’re a single entity instead of the product of three different vocalists. When Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott do take solos, they usually sing them to each other, turning each song into a duet rather than an individual showcase.

Sure, there are some humdrum moments. “Friday Night” may borrow its guitar riff from rock ‘n’ roll, but the lyrics wind their way through some of the oldest cliches in the country songbook. How many times do we need to hear a county band sing the praises of summer sunshine, Friday evenings and long stretches of blacktop? Enough already.

For the most part, though, “Own The Night” keeps things familiar without sinking into routine. Groups like Lady Antebellum don’t break new ground; they just deliver contemporary country music better than most of their peers. There may be nothing as immediately powerful as “Need You Now” here, but “Own The Night” does exactly what it needs to do: satisfy fans on both sides of the country/pop divide, proving that the two genres have more in common than they think.

We Are the Tide

Blind Pilot

Expunged Records

★★★★

Years ago, Blind Pilot’s two founders toured around the Northwest on their bicycles, carrying their instruments with them and attracting as much attention for their “go green” transportation as the music itself. It was the band’s first major tour, as well as the first time that anyone beyond the West Coast had heard of this quirky indie folk act.

“We Are the Tide,” Blind Pilot’s second album, lets the music do the talking. What began as a duo has since expanded into a six-person ensemble featuring upright bass, banjo, vibraphone and horns. The lineup may be large, but the songs are rarely cluttered; instead, they’re presented as homespun, folksy pop tunes, sounding a bit like the Shins with crisper production and a stronger debt to Americana music.

On “Just One” and “White Apple,” the band layers coed vocal harmonies over acoustic guitars. There’s a touch of Fleetwood Mac to the band’s sound, not to mention a bit of Crosby, Stills & Nash, but linking Blind Pilot to the folk-pop icons of yesteryear doesn’t do justice to these songs. “We Are the Tide” never looks backward for inspiration; it looks around itself, finding a way to modernize the music that band leaders Israel Nebeker and Ryan Dobrowski grew up with.

Ryan Adams readies new album

There was a time when Ryan Adams was the most prolific musician in the country, releasing an average of one album per year and playing the occasional show comprising songs he’d written that same day. Things had been quiet since 2008, though, with Mr. Adams only coming out of semi-retirement to release a half-serious metal album, “Orion,” and a collection of discarded B-sides.

“Ashes & Fire,” due out next month, promises to be a return to his country-rock roots. Previewed during his recent European tour, the album was produced by Glyn Johns and features keyboards by Benmont Trench, an original member of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. It’s also Mr. Adams’ major-label debut, with backing by Capitol Records.

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