Gary Allan, “Set You Free”
Gary Allan shows younger country singers the difference between true emotion and posturing on his searing new album, “Set You Free.” Allan avoids all Nashville trends and cliches, as he has for most of his 17-year recording career. Instead, he digs deep into edgy songs that balance pain and self-reckoning with gritty determination and a hard-earned transcendence.
Experimenting with sounds and textures, Allan co-produced seven of the 11 tracks working with three different producers, among them the red-hot Jay Joyce. Allan also co-wrote five cuts, including the current country radio hit, “Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain).”
After recent vocal surgery, the California native sounds more expressive than ever, and the roller coaster of feelings he instills in “Set You Free” illustrates why he's among the contemporary country stars deserving of being called an artist.
The Joy Formidable, “Wolf’s Law”
Two years after The Joy Formidable barreled to the fringe of the rock mainstream with the lush and brute “The Big Roar,” the Welsh trio returns with an even bigger and squalling encore. “Wolf's Law” is the arrival of a headliner.
This is wonderfully noisy and hooky, shimmering with guitar-pop accessibility. So what if standouts such as “Maw Maw Song” and the whirlwind “Bats” have the nagging feeling of sounding familiar — maybe a head-bopper from the alt-rock heyday of the '90s or another Brit rocker making massive songs for arenas like touring mates Muse. In the voice and guitar-hammering hands of frontwoman Ritzy Bryan, surprises (usually loud ones) are around every corner.
Jose James, “No Beginning No End”
After a lackluster 2010 U.S. recording debut, Jose James has returned with the self-financed and co-produced “No Beginning No End.” The album, eventually released by Blue Note, spotlights his songwriting skills and a unique musical persona that comfortably goes between neo-soul, R&B, hip-hop and jazz.
James' romantic baritone on the sensual, slow-tempo title track might evoke comparisons with neo-soul singer D'Angelo, but on original tunes like “Trouble,” with its funky bass and organ lines and horn blasts, he shows the influence of legends like Marvin Gaye. On “Vanguard,” co-written and performed with genre-bending jazz keyboardist Robert Glasper, he shows a modern jazz sensibility as he deftly handles the rhythmic shifts and complex harmonies.