Luke James – Luke James
Hanging around the edges of the biz for years writing songs for Chris Brown and Bieber, Luke James learned what not to be. He feels deeply and wants listeners to know it. Eschewing the trad trappings of Anthony Hamilton and John Legend, he cushions his material with synthesized block chords and the spaces between notes often created by Noah “40” Shebib and Salaam Remi, often given pats on the butt by programmed sequencers and loops. Coolness makes no sense to him though. Hyperemotional, sometimes overwrought, James leans into a performance as if it were his last task on earth. “Can’t believe I felt for all your fake shit/Well, fuck you!” he sings over and over on “Exit Wounds,” implying that he’s no fake shit. If that’s so, then he should have shouted at Rick Ross a little louder; hearing the ‘Maybach Music’ tag announce itself on the otherwise fine “Options” is like an imminent heart attack victim feeling pain shoot up his left arm. Whenever creamy dance floor flirtations like “Exposé” pop up they’re a relief. On “Dancing in the Dark” he garnishes the programmed clatter with a falsetto of exquisite poise. James pulls off the rarest of coups: the interludes are good! The finger snaps, harmonica, and multitracked vocals cooing the hook on “TimeX”? Pursue this, Luke.
Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’
No standouts like Call Me Crazy‘s “The Bees” and “Solitary Thinkin‘,” just a solid album of impeccably played tunes about sin and salvation: the liquor that leads to the former and the love of a man that makes the latter possible. Womack has used the treacle-istic “I Hope You Dance” as the palimpsest for a career spent in redress and remodeling: since 2005’s There’s More Where That Came From, one of the decade’s most assured collections, she has sought responsive musicians and songwriters schooled in tradition enough to fuck with it. The closer she hues to bluegrass themes, the duller she sounds (the title track, “All His Saints”); when the material teases out the pathos in her crystalline, almost pinched alto, no one in country can top her. Lamenting the disappearance of her dad and his hardware store, the town and her prospects on “Send It on Down,” Womack sounds ravaged. But The Way I’m Livin‘s triumphs are two covers: Roger Miller’s “Tomorrow Night in Baltimore,” with sympathetic accompaniment by multi-instrumentalist Mac McAnally; and “Out on the Weekend,” in which Womack inhabits the undiscovered corners of Neil Young’s 1972 genre exercise; it turns into another tale of solitary drinkin’, every night as desolate as the last. Thank husband Frank Lidell, who after helming Pistol Annies and Miranda Lambert can claim to understand this shit better than anyone in Nashvile. Scolds who long for the days of Loretta and George aren’t buying Womack’s records.