New works from Davies, Mayer, Paisley
Ray Davies, “Americana”
Think of “Americana,” the first release of new material from former Kinks frontman Ray Davies in nine years, as a musical memoir of sorts. It’s a welcome return for one of rock’s signature voices and it finds Davies in a reflective and introspective mood.
Cowboys. Coca Cola. Highways. New York. Silent movies. The Kinks.
They all get referenced over 15 tracks, as Davies sings about his life working and living in America over the past 50 years. Davies finds the perfect backing band in The Jayhawks to tell his stories both in song and spoken readings from his 2013 memoir.
But it’s more than just a nostalgic travelogue.
Davies, who penned some of rock’s most well-known songs including “Lola” and “You Really Got Me,” is also one of the best — and perhaps most underrated — storytellers. His signature sharp wit and razor-sharp insight are in full force on “Americana.”
On the standout track “Poetry,” Davies beautifully questions what has become of a country dominated by fast food restaurants, shopping malls and a bland sameness.
“Where is the poetry, what is the rhyme?” Davies sings, wistfully. “What is the meaning? Give us a sign.”
There’s no better place to start looking for those answers than “Americana.”
John Mayer, “The Search for Everything”
Earth’s reigning guitar god, John Mayer, is out with his seventh studio album, “The Search for Everything.” It reveals a calmer artist taking a measured approach to accessible funk-laced songs.
This is a confident album that feels less like an artistic exploration and more like plate of musical comfort food. There are few unexpected turns. The arrangements are solid, if a slight bit predictable.
“Still Feel Like Your Man” is the track that stands out most — the easy-to-feel rhythm is accessible and the lovelorn message is a good fit. Slow breaks give way to a danceable hook and a sunny outlook for Mayer.
“Helpless” continues the newfound funky Mayer approach. Sure, he’s always had the ability to play this tight, chunky guitar stuff, but he’s previously eschewed it for pop and blistering rock explorations. It’s a tight song, but doesn’t reveal the ever-evolving Mayer much for us. “Rosie” might have worked better slower, with more of a torch underneath it. Instead, Mayer opted for the path of least resistance when he might have pushed himself more.
It’s good enough and there are no plum awful tracks. But “The Search for Everything “ gets softer and softer with each song. Too much piano here, not enough guitar there and, before we know it, Mayer is either taking an emotional breather or positioning himself for the “Moana 2: Wedding Band Boogaloo” soundtrack.
His fans will accept, but ultimately shrug at this album. It feels bereft of the songwriter tumult that got him here.
Brad Paisley, “Love and War”
When you can namecheck the UFC and Zebco fishing reels in the lead track to your 11th studio album, “Love And War,” you are probably Grammy Award-winning country music machine Brad Paisley and you can do no wrong.
Paisley is the salve when someone throws a curveball at country. He’s that dependable voice of bro-country. All of the familiar icons are here: Beer cans, pickup trucks, lip-kissing and jobs you have to get to. But the hidden secret is that Paisley can play the paint off a guitar and get the biggest names in the business to sing along with him on his strongest tracks.
Sir Mick Jagger helps him out with stellar vocals on “Drive of Shame,” a raucous twang of a track. John Fogerty weighs in on the album’s title song, “Love And War,” a soaring call-out txo take care of America’s veterans when they come home broken.
Resistance is futile. If you like country, then there are a couple of Paisley songs you love. If you’re new to the genre, he’s an easy way in because he surrounds his music with everyman themes and solid musicianship.
“Love And War” has tracks that will burn up hot country spots on the radio dial and cement his place as the most dependable act in the business. The mix-down throughout is a tad flat, but this is meant to be heard in a bar, in a truck, on the road and on the go.
You can hate bro-country, but don’t hate Brad Paisley for being the best at it.
Angaleena Presley, “Wrangled”
(Mining Light/Thirty Tigers)
Angaleena Presley has earned her place in the resistance to the formulaic vibe that rules Nashville these days. On her new album, “Wrangled,” she cements it with muscular fury.
Presley established her credentials with “American Middle Class” in 2014. On the new album she confronts similar demons, raging against the Nashville hierarchy but also Christian hypocrisy and any effort to pigeonhole her as a songwriter and a woman.
Rapper Yelawolf joins her on “Country,” a tirade against bro-country, complete with a “thank God for Sturgill Simpson” shout-out to everyone’s current favorite rebel. And on a feminist collaboration with rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson, Presley declares herself “not just a pretty face, not a flower in a vase.”
But Presley is at her best when she’s not ranting. She’s a world-class songwriter, which she proves on the title cut and on “Cheer Up Little Darling,” co-written and delivered with the late Guy Clark, a longtime mentor. The last song Clark completed, it serves as a gentle farewell.
Presley channels her feminist anger most effectively on “Only Blood,” co-written with fellow renegade Chris Stapleton. It takes on domestic violence with a clever twist on redemption and stands out on an album that sometimes feels too self-conscious.
Not as soulful as Presley’s first album, “Wrangled” still has its moments. They happen when Presley takes a storyteller’s approach to her anger. That’s when she affirms her status as one of Nashville’s most authentic and provocative artists.
“The Last Rider”
Ron Sexsmith maintains his melodic consistency on “The Last Rider,” 15 pop songs absorbed by the threat of loneliness and ways to avoid it.
The Canadian recorded his 13th solo album with his touring band, adding to its ease and intimacy. Sexsmith has said he thought this could be his final recording for some time, but the pleasure of the experience might make him reconsider.
Sexsmith is at his most romantic on “Evergreen,” ”Our Way” and “Worried Song,” his significant other appearing in different guises as the source of hope, security or inspiration.
“Radio” is low-voltage power pop about the days when young lives revolved around the AM/FM dial and “people could move you with just a voice and a song.” Sexsmith sounds a little like Rufus Wainwright on the lighthearted “West Gwillimbury,” also a trip down memory lane, as is “Breakfast Ethereal,” about a “soft focus world where tomorrow seemed bright.”
“Dreams Are Bigger” has a singalong chorus worthy of a long-distance dedication — “If your dreams are bigger than your worries, you’ll never have to worry about your dreams” — with musical hints of New Orleans, while “Man at the Gate (1913)” was inspired by a postcard purchase and dwells on anonymous lives and connections across the years, also recurring themes in the Sexsmith catalog.
There are no surprises here but don’t be distracted by the apparent familiarity of some of the tunes. Sexsmith’s range may not be wide but his aim is true.