Hiromi provides delightful look at life, challenges and all
“Alive” is closer to a suite than simply the music of a piano trio. That description could make the album seem a little weighty, but don't be dissuaded. The album is an examination of pianist Hiromi's look at the challenges of life, and it's done with such good play, it is enjoyable. But it's mostly music played by a trio, not created by one. This is not work like that of Keith Jarrett or Fred Hersch, where the three individuals shape the music. While bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips offer great work behind her, they are clearly in the support role. The pieces, all by Hiromi, are delightful looks at various parts of life: The title cut celebrates being alive; “Player” is a whimsical ode to having fun; “Dreamer” has the force of taking up a cause; “Life Goes On” is a funky nudge to maintaining your goals. The best piece could be “Firefly,” which is sadder than it sounds and deals with the passing of time. Hiromi is a constantly developing pianist.
‘Numbers & Letters'
Andrew Rathbun (Steeple Chase)
Andrew Rathbun takes on a variety of music with a variety of instruments on “Numbers & Letters.” And it all his own doing. For the album, he wrote 11 songs that range from a moody “Tears and Fears” to “Etude,” which has the sound of a good academic exercise for those with a sense of jazz. He plays on alto, tenor and soprano saxes on the album, showing command of all of them. His is accompanied on the album by a threesome of ace sidemen who always can be counted on to do a good job: pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Bill Stewart. Trumpeter Taylor Haskins sits in on two cuts, most noticeably on “Counterpoint,” which has the thematic interplay the title suggests. It is an album on which no song stands out; yet, each is done well enough to make the listen worthwhile.
‘In the Lonely Hour'
Sam Smith (Capitol)
The “male Adele” label hung around 22-year-old Brit Sam Smith's neck extends to music-business strategy. As with Adele's mega-selling “21,” Smith's album, “In the Lonely Hour,” has been held off streaming services such as Spotify. If you want to get your hands on the debut album by the blue-eyed soul singer with the attention-getting voice, you'll have to buy it.
Which plenty of people are. Smith's path to stardom began with his vocal turn on “Latch,” the breakout single from dance duo Disclosure, fellow Brits. A “Saturday Night Live” gig this spring sealed the deal. “In the Lonely Hour” is an auspicious beginning built on sincerity and vulnerability. Smith possesses a supple tenor that moves startlingly up into falsetto range. From start to finish here, he uses it to express his regrets over a love affair that never came to fruition. “I put everything out there, and I got nothing at all,” he sings in “Good Thing.” At a young age, Smith is a seasoned vocalist who knows how to employ his voice with subtlety, and while his one-dimensional writing could use a little work, he's already got the knack for the time-honored practice of singing it like he means it.
Robin Thicke (Star Trak/Interscope)
Everything about Robin Thicke's album “Paula” is a bad idea.
Thicke has decided to follow up all his “Blurred Lines” success with an album of oddly personal love songs designed to win back his high-school sweetheart and wife of nine years, actress Paula Patton. To make matters worse, the first single, “Get Her Back” — a genuine-sounding love ballad/mea culpa that is really the only strong song on this strangely haphazard album — has a ridiculous video that features what may or may not be text messages exchanged by the couple during their breakup. Because nothing makes a celebrity relationship, especially one that includes a 4-year-old son, stronger than airing your fights in public, right?
The video makes the whole “concept” of “Paula” feel like a marketing ploy for a lackluster album, which may or may not be the case. “I thought everyone was going to eat the chip, turns out I'm the only one who double-dipped” is a terrible line, regardless of the context. When placed in the middle of “Black Tar Cloud,” where Thicke alleges threatening fights and a fake suicide attempt in their relationship, it makes the whole song and its faux-soul call-and-response almost laughable.
The James Brown-ish soul of “Living in New York City” shows how wasteful much of “Paula” is. It's got a great groove, Thicke's voice sounds good, but it's built on nonsense like “America! It's time we go!”
“Paula” is a wasted opportunity for the talented Thicke on basically every level. He should plot out his next moves much more carefully.
Ed Sheeran (Asylum/Atlantic)
Maybe it's his soft, slightly throaty voice, or his wisdom-of-age outlook, but it seems as if Ed Sheeran has been around longer than 23 years. That mix of innocence and sage wistfulness comes together handsomely, and unpredictably, on “X,” following Sheeran's economical, twisting, dark lyrics.
Musically and vocally, “Runaway” and the stompy “Photographs” sound like the dewy-fresh, ebulliently youthful Sheeran you know and love from “The A Team.” Sheeran's rap (yup) on “The Man” may signal disgust toward a cheating heart, but it comes off like a kid with scuffed knees. Then again, it could just be that his rap is so awkward. Luckily, he does better matching falsettos with Pharrell Williams on the slick, woozy “Sing.”
The rest of “x” portrays Sheeran and his protagonists as weeping-in-his-cider guys whose fame means nothing in the face of love and the fate of a bruised heart. It's a little too obvious to be “stumbling off drunk,” on “One,” or to reveal the ache of love so bluntly on “I'm a Mess,” or to grouse cattily about the competition on “Don't,” but, all in all, Sheeran's directness comes off as refreshing, balanced by a gentle toughness to his vocals.