Brantley Gilbert, “Just as I Am” (Valory)

Country songs don’t come much slinkier than “Bottoms Up,” the recent hit by Gilbert. He comes on like a revving monster-truck engine, backed by heavy rock guitar, but there’s a slyness to his singing. Beneath his boxy exterior, there’s an active intelligence about melody and texture, which makes this song, built of industrial-scale parts, almost soft.

Gilbert is a unique sort of brute. In a country era where hardness isn’t valorized in the least, he’s unapologetically rough, singing with the tenderness of a chain saw. And on this strong album — his third in a row — he betrays no shame about his creatine-fueled version of country music, which has more in common with 1980s arena rock than with the rest of Nashville.

But what elegance Gilbert manages in this demolition derby. His version of masculinity spans rough seduction (the muscled “If You Want a Bad Boy”) and rough partying (the dull “Small Town Throwdown”), to be sure.

But just when the bulk threatens to become suffocating, Gilbert shows that he has much more than that. The gentle reminiscing on “Lights of My Hometown” has moments of striking feeling: “Light a flashlight on the tombstone/Let your best friend know he ain’t alone.”

And “I’m Gone” works a neat sleight-of-lyric. “I’m not going/I’m gone,” he sings on this tender yet resentful song. “What you’re seeing is a ghost/I’m just dust that hasn’t settled.”

Gilbert has a writing credit on every song here, and certainly an intimate understanding of how his hard exterior allows him to flaunt softness when it’s called for. He is a lunk with poet dreams, a bodybuilder cradling a newborn.



The Black Keys, “Turn Blue” (Nonesuch)

A dozen years ago, the Black Keys were a scrappy little indie blues-rock duo from Akron, Ohio, trying to make a “big come up” with updated, fuzzed-out blues riffs and big backbeats. Seven albums later, singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Pat Carney have grown into an increasingly popular indie-rock blues duo with licensing deals and cosigns from legendary rockers such as Rod Stewart and Robert Plant.

The band’s eighth album is “Turn Blue,” titled as a regional nod to Cleveland television legend Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson. The album finds the Keys and studio collaborator/third member Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton further expanding their sound. Many of the 11 tracks contain psyche-rock and soul flavors and recall some of the grooves found on the Blakrock hip-hop side project. “Turn Blue” is also the band’s least guitar-centric collection of songs, with bass and keyboards and Carney’s loping, hip-hop flavored grooves as the foundation of many of the tunes rather than a big riff or some crunchy chords.

With those strong rhythmic foundations, Auerbach’s catchy melodic sense shines through, buoyed by the McCrary sisters’ heavily reverbed, often wordless backing vocals. He has clearly grown confident in his falsetto singing and uses it to great effect on the slinky, soulful “In Time” and the ethereal “Waiting on Words.” Lyrically, the album is the band’s moodiest and tinged with bitterness. It’s not a happy record, but it feels cathartic, and fans who paid attention to the TMZ-driven kerfuffle around Auerbach’s contentious divorce will surely look for clues in songs such as “Year in Review.” For all the sonic and arrangement expansion, “Turn Blue” does contain a few old-school, Keys-flavored tunes for folks clinging to their copies of “Rubber Factory.”

Malcolm X Abram, Akron Beacon Journal