- - Monday, September 19, 2011

The Reckoning

Needtobreathe

Atlantic Records

★★★½

Needtobreathe is either the most rocking Christian band or the most Christian rock band around. It’s hard to tell which. The guys have spent the past few years walking a fine line between the secular and the sacred, keeping enough religion in their lyrics to please their spiritual audience without scaring away those who choose to spend their Sunday mornings in bed, not in church.

“The Reckoning” doesn’t try to clear up any ambiguities. Technically, the Day of Reckoning is synonymous with Judgment Day, in which God essentially stops the clock and decides the fate of every human being. There are a few more allusions to the Bible scattered throughout the album, and the music itself - an elevated, amplified version of Southern roots-rock - is the sort of chest-thumping stuff that sounds good in churches and arenas alike. Still, there’s something about the band’s sound, whether it’s the emphasis on loud guitars or the boozy tilt of Bear Rinehart’s voice, that’s more indebted to rock ‘n’ roll than anything else.

At the end of the day, Needtobreathe’s church-going habits aren’t nearly as important as the actual songs, which are played with dramatic, hot-headed energy throughout this disc. Whenever Mr. Rinehart sings one of the louder songs, it sounds like he’s casting out demons, howling every melody with the gruff timbre and slight vibrato of a bluesman. The band even strikes up a demented carnival groove on the lead-off track, “Oohs and Ahhs.”

The real highlights, though, are the songs that show off the band’s heartland roots. “Drive All Night” has the epic sweep of a Bruce Springsteen tune. “A Place Only You Can Go” pairs acoustic guitar with bagpipes and fiddles. The title track, which seems to be more about proving your worth as a man than keeping yourself squared away with a higher power, conjures up images of some vast, open landscape.

“The Reckoning” is rock ‘n’ roll music with a moral compass.

SuperHeavy

SuperHeavy

A&M Records

★★

Some supergroups make total sense. Two decades ago, the Traveling Wilburys helped bridge the gap between classic genres - folk, rockabilly, early rock ‘n’ roll - and contemporary sounds. More recently, Velvet Revolver combined Guns N’ Roses with Stone Temple Pilots, revitalizing both bands during a lull in their careers.

If there’s one element tying those supergroups together, it’s the fact that each one was formed with a clear purpose. Velvet Revolver existed because the former members of Guns N’ Roses wanted to work with a vocalist who wasn’t as screwball as Axl Rose. Audioslave, essentially the combination of Soundgarden’s frontman with Rage Against the Machine’s instrumental section, was formed after Rage’s original singer quit the band. This brings us to SuperHeavy, whose purpose is a bit muddier.

One thing is for certain: SuperHeavy has some serious star power. The roster includes rock icon Mick Jagger, soul singer Joss Stone, reggae heir Damian Marley, Eurythmics co-founder Dave Stewart and Indian film composer A.R. Rahman. No single member dominates the group; instead, each one is given his or her own time to shine, even if Mr. Stewart’s behind-the-scenes contributions aren’t quite as obvious as, say, Mr. Jagger’s singing.

This democratic way of sharing the spotlight may be the band’s downfall, though. What began as a well-meaning idea to combine rock, R&B, reggae and Indian music winds up being a rootless combination of all four. Classical violins butt heads with reggae rhythms, and bluesy melodies clash with dancehall raps. Mr. Jagger even attempts a little rapping himself, which is sure to make Brian Jones roll over in his grave.

“SuperHeavy,” the band’s self-titled debut, has some scattered highlights, and it’s fun to hear these A-listers pass the microphone around. Still, the whole is far less than the sum of its parts, making this album little more than clunky math set to a genre-hopping beat.

Unbroken

Demi Lovato

Hollywood Records

★★

In the past two years, Demi Lovato has topped the Billboard charts, ended a highly publicized relationship with one of the Jonas Brothers and had a stint in rehab. It’s her hospital stay that informs the bulk of “Unbroken,” an album that reinvents its maker as an R&B starlet while trying to wipe clean her public record.

Miss Lovato is still a teenager, though, and it wasn’t so long ago that Disney controlled her every move. Throwing off the Mickey Mouse shackles is something “Unbroken” can’t quite do, even if it does pair her with some of R&B’s leading lights, including Timbaland and Missy Elliot. The kids are going to love “You’re My Only Shorty,” an Auto-Tuned duet with hip-hop heavyweight Iyaz, but this Mouseketeer doesn’t sound ready to leave the nest just yet.

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