New CD reviews: Tribute to Jackson Browne, Future Islands

  • Updated: March 31, 2014 - 3:06 PM

POP/ROCK

Various artists, “Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne” (Music Road)

To my ears, Browne, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who was a pillar of California soft-rock, was a better songwriter than singer (his voice never had much range, emotionally or dynamically). But the unimpeachable high-caliber of his song catalog is on display in this smartly executed, 23-song collection, which features big names (Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, Lyle Lovett) and cult heroes (Keb’ Mo’, Jimmy LaFave, Sara & Sean Watkins).

Hearing both men and women sing — sometimes even male/female duets — gives these remarkable tunes new resonance.

Eliza Gilkyson’s dusky vocals add a foreboding to “Before the Deluge.” Hearing “For a Dancer” by the quartet of brothers and cousins known as Venice makes it somehow less sad. The deeper voices of Kevin Welch and Bob Schneider give new textures to “Looking into You” and a slowed-down “Running on Empty,” respectively.

Joan Osborne brings a new elegance to “Late for the Sky,” Lucinda Williams puts an ache in “The Pretender,” and Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa, introduce you to a different “Linda Paloma.” Those three numbers are the highlights of this highly recommended double-disc saluting one of the most literate, sensitive singer-songwriters of the ’70s and ’80s.

Jon Bream, Star Tribune

Future Islands, ‘’Singles’’ (4AD)

What made synth-pop so radical the first time around was its tension between dry delivery and ecstatic release, between true machines and true heart. Three decades later, those things aren’t in opposition anymore, so when one arrives without the other, it’s news.

Future Islands, a Baltimore band, has split them asunder on ‘’Singles,’’ its moody, pulpy fourth album. The synth-pop skeletons here are alluring: ‘’Singles’’ succeeds in accessing the unconscious pleasures associated with the cold percussion and computer melodies of the early-mid-1980s.

But then there’s the frontman, Samuel T. Herring, more a moaner than a singer, who never quite gets to the release on this album that, despite its adeptness, ultimately comes off as restrained. Sometimes, on songs like ‘’Light House,’’ his reserve takes on an almost British quality, accent included. This persists, despite the apparent depth of feeling on ‘’Spirit’’ and ‘’Doves’’ (‘’And I feel it go/What we held so slow/Goes so quickly’’), or the lushness of ‘’Like the Moon.’’ Herring nails the hurt, but never leavens it.

‘’Singles’’ captures an eclectic band doubling down on one of its ideas, one which had been a high point of its last two albums, ‘’On the Water’’ and particularly the strong ‘’In Evening Air.”

But it’s worth remembering this is a band with varied inclinations, which peek through in a few spots on this album. Herring unleashes some deep, dark death metal growls on ‘’Fall From Grace.’’ And he also raps, apparently. Maybe his true pleasures are still waiting to be unearthed.

JON CARAMANICA, New York Times

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