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MUSIC REVIEWS: Jason Aldean, Leona Lewis, Ben Gibbard
Broken Bow Records
Jason Aldean never met a cliche he didn't like. His latest album, "Night Train," is full of them, from the water tower that looms over a lonely, one-horse town in "Water Tower" to the good ol' Southern boy who works the fields in "The Only Way I Know."
At 15 tracks, there's plenty of room for "Night Train" to go off course and explore new territory. It doesn't. Like the broken-hearted girl working at a gentlemen's club in "Black Tears," unable to tear herself away from a bad situation, Mr. Aldean can't seem to stop churning out predictable country songs.
Let's rephrase that last sentence. Mr. Aldean didn't write any of these songs, so he's not churning out predictable material as much as putting his own stamp on somebody else's predictable material.
That would be fine if Mr. Aldean could somehow elevate the songs — with powerhouse vocals, maybe, or even just a unique guitar style — but he sounds anonymous, delivering each song with a personality-free voice and relying on his backup band to do most of the heavy lifting.
He sings the praises of country life on "This Nothin' Town," waxes nostalgic on "1994," compares his tour bus to a bullet on "Wheels Rollin'" and attempts to woo his girlfriend — on the hood of a Ford truck, no less — during "Talk." Each song sounds colossal, stacked to the brim with power chords, keyboards and swooping pedal steel, but "Night Train" feels hollow at the middle, like it's running on fumes instead of actual inspiration.
Leona Lewis is a fantastic, savvy singer whose vocal chops always seem to outshine her songs. By focusing on hip, detailed dance music instead of gauzy ballads, though, "Glassheart" puts the two on equal ground.
Like most club albums, "Glassheart" pays a lot of attention to production. The songs are decorated like one-bedroom Manhattan apartments; every last inch is crammed with stuff, from keyboards to sweeping strings to throbbing, electro-pop percussion. Miss Lewis' voice is pushed to the forefront, and she sounds great, belting out a string of throaty R&B riffs one minute and flipping into a gorgeous, sublime coo the next.
"I'm a whole lot of trouble," she warns on the first song, a cautionary tale about love on the rocks. She never would have been able to deliver that kind of line on her first two albums, both of which muffled her personality in layers of tame, toothless adult-contemporary pop. "Glassheart" takes its cues from Kylie Minogue and "Confessions"-era Madonna, though, and it proves that Miss Lewis has a serious bite.
As the frontman of Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard has built a career on the fault line between adorable, whimsical pop music and cloying, saccharine mistakes. He ditches his band mates on this solo album, but "Former Lives" still straddles that familiar border, balancing a handful of sunny, pleasant songs with a few numbers that are too cute for their own good.
"Former Lives" doesn't really sound like Death Cab. Mr. Gibbard's distinctive, Kermit-like vocals haven't changed a bit, but he allows himself some wiggle room when it comes to the actual songs, which touch upon folk, country and mariachi music over the course of 36 minutes.
Those detours wind up being the most interesting thing about "Former Lives." The Western-themed "Something's Rattling (Cowpoke)" finds room for a Tex-Mex horn section, and "Duncan, Where Have You Gone" mixes the chord progression from Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" with the lush, stacked harmonies of a Carpenters classic.
Written after Mr. Gibbard's public divorce from actress Zooey Deschanel, "Former Lives" has a darker side, too. Many of its characters are sad and heartbroken, and even the sunniest chord progression can't hide the meaning behind a song such as "Oh, Woe." You can't help but wish Mr. Gibbard had brought that darkness to the forefront, though, especially when he reverts back to slap-happy songs such as "Shepherd's Bush Lullaby," an a cappella song that sounds like the work of an unrehearsed indie-pop barbershop quartet.
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