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Disc reviews: Ne-Yo, Bjork, The Lone Bellow, Anonymous 4

Pop

Ne-Yo

Non-Fiction

[Motown]

∆∆½

Ne-Yo made mad money writing massive pop hits for artists like Beyoncé, Pitbull, Mario and Jennifer Hudson. His solo career has been more of a hit-and-miss affair, however. His greatest strength is a gorgeous tenor that can move with agility from well-rounded full voice into breathy, soul-drenched falsetto.

The guy sings beautifully. However, crafting songs that move with melodic intention does not seem to be his strong suit. His melodies meander. If not for the strength of the singing, they would be largely forgettable.

“Non-Fiction” is album No. 6 for the singer, and it certainly has its moments of sultry and successful neo-soul. “Integrity,” a spacey blend of electro-pop and stoner-soul, sounds like Terence Trent D’arby covering something from Justin Timberlake’s “20/20 Experience,” and if it never really goes anywhere, it at least floats along pleasantly. “One More” is a Michael Jackson-informed ballad, and again, the singing is virtuosic, if cloyingly overproduced. (Ne-Yo does not need Auto-Tune.) T.I. shows up to offer a sleepy rap that doesn’t ruin the song but doesn’t help it either.

In fact, whenever guests show up on “Non-Fiction” – Pitbull for the forgettable “Time of Our Lives,” Schoolboy Q during opener “Run,” Jeezy for the somewhat cluttered “Money Can’t Buy” – the listener can’t help but wish he or she had simply stayed home.

The simple pleasures of listening to Ne-Yo sing are really the only pleasures “Non-Fiction” has to offer. Certainly, the lyrics – which seem to be, perhaps understandably, obsessed with how a young, attractive and sexually adventurous young pop star can resist the charms of the many good-looking women on offer – are nothing special most of the time, and embarrassingly cliché-ridden the rest.

Ne-Yo certainly has a great album in him somewhere. I’d love to hear him paired with the Roots, a la John Legend, or in the more adventurous neo-soul realm in which D’Angelo is king. Instead, he hedges his bets, throwing incongruous guest raps into tunes where more attention to melodies and hooks would have served him better.

– Jeff Miers

POP

Björk

Vulnicura

[One Little Indian]

∆∆∆½

On Björk’s ninth album “Vulnicura,” the microscope has been turned inward on the Icelandic musician, brutally chronicling the dissolution of her relationship with longtime partner, avant-garde New York filmmaker and sculptor Matthew Barney. The simplistic, yet savagely blunt lyrics seem ripped from the pages of her most intimate journals, yet there’s something refreshing about being given an honest glimpse into the heart and mind of Björk, the flesh and blood human.

Through a sumptuously orchestrated song cycle, Björk explores her fears, frustrations and despair at watching the world she created with Barney (never officially mentioned by name in the lyrics) crumble before her. It’s a bit like witnessing the encroaching darkness of the Nothing devour the landscape of Fantastica in Michael Ende’s fantasy classic “Die Unendliche Geschicte.” The inhabitants can do little but watch everything they love be destroyed and then vanish before their eyes. As the album unfolds, “Vulnicura” proves to be one of the most approachable collections of songs she has unleashed upon the public since 2001.

Those expecting a lighthearted romp through an avant-garde pop playland might be disappointed with “Vulnicura,” but Björk wasn’t writing this album to satiate the portion of her fan base still clamoring for another “Hyper-Ballad” or “Big Time Sensuality.” Break-up albums aren’t particularly groundbreaking or unprecedented these days, but somehow she has crafted one that seems uniquely sincere. In publicly recounting the agony of losing a man she loved dearly and trying to protect her daughter from the collapse of that relationship, she delivered one of the most breathtaking examples of the genre in recent memory. The album opens with a simplistic line “Moments of clarity are so rare/I better document this.” The listener should be immensely grateful she did just that.

– Ryan Lathan,

PopMatters.com

Pop

The Lone Bellow

Then Came the Morning

[Descendant]

∆∆

All it takes is one listen of the Lone Bellow’s music to get a sense of why the band has made a connection with the public after only one album. The trio has one songwriting technique nailed down: the crescendo. On the band’s self-titled debut and now its sophomore outing, “Then Came the Morning,” it spends each song building up to a euphoric moment of catharsis, with the group’s vocal harmonies in perfect unison, note for note.

With vocal arrangements ripped straight out of the Great Gospel Playbook, the trio kicks the doors off the hinges with the opening title track, establishing an intense emotionality that doesn’t let up for the rest of the LP. Unfortunately, while one would be correct in admiring this group’s emotional endurance, it’s not long after “Then Came the Morning” that the law of diminishing returns begins to kick in. Most of the record mines this rise/fall theatric: Soft verses suddenly give way to climactic choruses, where the singers harmonize to beautiful perfection. There’s a reason why the band so clearly leans on this strategy: The members are exceptional at it. That being said, over the course of 13 tracks, this emotional roller coaster tactic wears out pretty quickly.

For any other band, it would be easy to just chalk this up as a basic case of the sophomore slump. With the Lone Bellow, though, it feels especially more disappointing, given the raw talent that’s been obvious since the trio’s self-titled debut. There’s still plenty of reason to have hope for this group, but after this outing, one has good reason to worry that the Lone Bellow might fall victim to the curse of homogeneity.

– Brice Ezell,

PopMatters.com

americana

Anonymous 4

1865

[Harmonia Mundi]

∆∆½

The people of 1865, the year the Civil War ended, looked sorrow in the face, and a lot of these 18 songs are frankly dolorous. Many of them, though, also have a certain haunting beauty. Anonymous 4, four singers better known for their forays into medieval music, have the kind of clear, natural voices that lend themselves well to these rustic songs and parlor songs, written in an era when everyone sang, not just trained singers.

“The True Lover’s Farewell” sounds like a song Joan Baez might sing, except the soprano soloist here is vibrato free, almost like a bagpipe. And it is a pleasure to hear the quartet breathing together, sculpting perfect harmonies a cappella, in the old hymns “Abide With Me” and “Shall We Gather At the River.” There also is lots of lively mandolin, banjo, guitar and fiddle. It’s also a pleasure to hear songs that once upon a time everyone knew, like “Home Sweet Home” and the abolitionist anthem “Darling Nellie Gray,” sure to bring a tear to your eye.

Also, the beautiful, mournful “Aura Lee” (which Elvis made into “Love Me Tender”); “Listen To the Mockingbird,” about how sweet Ally is sleeping in the valley; and “Hard Times Come Again No More,” by Stephen Foster, who, speaking of sorrow, had died in 1864. Jaunty tempos and banjo picking liven up a lot of the numbers, including “The Faded Coat of Blue,” which begins “My brave lad he sleeps in his faded coat of blue/In a lonely grave unknown lies the heart that beat so true...” and only goes downhill from there. Unflinching it is, but this collection is a wonderful window into a vanished time.

– Mary Kunz Goldman

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