Natalie Maines‘ first solo album continues her movement into a deeply considered, provocative form of polished adult rock heard on her last recording, the Dixie Chicks’ 2006 award-winning ``Take the Long Way Home.‘’
As with that album, Maines sets aside the cheeky playfulness that marked her success in country music. Instead, she carefully curates an album of covers and originals by other writers -- with one strong original, ``Take It On Faith.‘’ She leans hard on philosophical lyrics about self-identity (the title song, ``Free Life‘’) and the importance of strong relations (“Without You,‘’ ``Come Cryin‘ To Me’‘). Much like Maines’ public persona since her fallout with the conservative right after speaking out against the Iraq War, the songs waver between gutsy stands and seeking shelter with those who care for and understand her.
Musically, producer Ben Harper gives her a lush background on intimate songs and a bluesy raucousness on up-tempo tunes. Maines shows how she can wail on rockers like Patty Griffin‘s ``Silver Bell,’‘ but it’s on Jeff Buckley‘s dramatic ``Lover, You Should’ve Come Over‘’ that shows how effective she can be with emotional vulnerability and the power of the full range of her vocals.
Maines‘ talent once put the Dixie Chicks atop the country music world, which made the group’s rejection and withdrawal such a loss. ``Mother‘’ finds Maines still affected by that controversy. But it also proves that, as an artist, she‘s still an American treasure.
J. Cole is superb on sophomore album
J. Cole continues to live up to the hype he initially got from rap great Jay-Z, delivering an assortment of quality songs on his sophomore album, “Born Sinner.”
Like his 2011 debut album, the 28-year-old primarily produces his new offering with some help from No I.D. and Elite. Cole shows improvement as a producer and lyricist, spitting rhymes with honesty and clarity throughout the 16 tracks, which include two entertaining skits and two interludes.
The North Carolina native raps about temptation and commitment struggles on several songs such as ``Trouble,’‘ ``Runaway’‘ and ``She Knows,’‘ which effectively co-stars Amber Coffman of the Dirty Projectors.
Cole raps about the stronghold of lust on the Kendrick Lamar-assisted ``Forbidden Fruit,’‘ which samples jazz organist Ronnie Foster’s ``Mystic Brew.‘’ It could be the album‘s best track if Lamar had been featured on more than just the hook.
On the title track, featuring singer-producer James Fauntleroy, Cole talks about the brutal music industry and trying to be the best person possible despite his flaws. ``Let Nas Down’‘ carries a jazzy tune with Cole recalling how he fell short of pleasing idolized rapper Nas, who hated his first hit single, ``Work Out,’‘ which samples part of Paula Abdul’s ``Straight Up‘’ and Kanye West‘s ``The New Workout Plan.’‘ Cole is also enjoyable with Miguel on the single ``Power Trip.’‘
Overall, ``Born Sinner’‘ is a treasure: Cole paints pictures with his superb rhymes and sets the mood nicely with his solid production.
Benson‘s vocals stand out on Cole tribute
“Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole”
Just how much Nat King Cole inspired George Benson is evident on the opening track of ``Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole’‘ - a 1951 recording of an 8-year-old Benson singing ``Mona Lisa,’‘ accompanying himself on ukulele.
Like Cole, Benson first established himself as a highly regarded jazz instrumentalist before enjoying crossover pop stardom once he began singing.
Benson shows off his jazz vocal chops with some scat singing on a fast-paced, brassy big band version of ``Just One Of Those Things’‘ and a Latin-flavored arrangement of ``Unforgettable,’‘ with Wynton Marsalis contributing a smooth trumpet solo.
He harmonizes beautifully with Broadway leading lady Idina Menzel on ``When I Fall In Love’‘ and rising star Judith Hill, recently eliminated from ``The Voice,’‘ on ``Too Young.’‘ Other highlights include a bluesy ``Route 66’‘ and a retro-style ``Straighten Up and Fly Right,’‘ with a hard-driving guitar solo -- both done in a small combo setting.
But Benson misses an opportunity to put his distinctive stamp on the Cole repertoire by letting his guitar take a backseat to his voice. The result is that some tracks such as ``Nature Boy’‘ and Mona Lisa,’‘ which also use Nelson Riddle’s arrangements for Cole‘s recordings, can sound derivative rather than fresh.