Elle Varner, "Perfectly Imperfect" (RCA)
The coyly contradictory title of Varner's debut echoes the message of its closer, "So Fly." The bouncy pop-reggae tune begins with a dispirited look in the mirror, pauses to consider surgical alterations and then pivots toward assuredness, delivering a body-image testimonial suitable for daytime talk shows and teen mags. More crucially for an R&B artist at this stage, it establishes a persona and a set of coordinates, roughly at the point of intersection between self-effacement and self-empowerment.
Varner, 23, has a lean and limber voice, which she often distresses for emphasis in the style of a classic soul singer. She has immediate pedigree as a singer-songwriter -- her parents, Mikelyn Roderick and Jimmy Varner, have had careers in the field -- and an affinity for the slinky, earnest R&B of the 1990s, which makes her seem instantly familiar and, given the current landscape, something of an outlier.
Humility suits Varner, even though she's clearly some kind of go-getter. She had a hand in writing every song on the album, which she produced with Oak and Pop, a working duo. "Only Wanna Give It to You," the album's lead single, breezily compares a prospective lover to a covetable pair of shoes; "Welcome Home" upholds a decidedly upper-middle-class vision of domestic bliss, down to the two-car garage.
Her most sensual turn is "Sound Proof Room," which suggests a playfully urgent twist on Jackson 5 nostalgia. On yearning slow jams such as "I Don't Care" and "Refill," she winsomely confides to a range of insecurities.
NATE CHINEN, NEW YORK TIMES
Hank Williams Jr., "Old School, New Rules" (Bocephus)
Last year, Hank Jr. lost his longtime gig on "Monday Night Football" after making an analogy involving Hitler and President Obama. Bocephus doesn't go quite that far here, but he still fills his new album with noxiously reactionary and dim-witted rantings.
"Hey, Barack, pack your bags," Williams sings on "Takin' Back the Country." He complains about "the United Socialist States of America" in "Keep the Change" and warns that "We Don't Apologize for America." (It's sad to hear Merle Haggard join in on the latter; in his twilight years, the country immortal has taken on more thoughtful and less belligerent views in matters such as these.)
It's a shame Williams lets his worst traits run free here because he really is talented, and the music here smokes the pants off most commercial country. His pungently bluesy take on his father's "You Win Again" is inspired, and "I'm Gonna Get Drunk and Play Hank Williams" (with Brad Paisley) is an irresistible honky-tonker. Of his originals, best of all is "That Ain't Good," a scorching country-rocker and workingman's lament that skirts partisanship -- and is all the more powerful for it.
NICK CRISTIANO, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER