Broken Bells, "After the Disco" (Columbia)
Broken Bells straighten out their priorities on their second album. James Mercer, the Shins' singer/songwriter, and Danger Mouse, the producer whose real name is Brian Burton, staked out a concept on their first eponymous 2010 album: They delivered downhearted lyrics using sliding synthesizer lines, Kraut-rock bass tones and primitive drum machines. Unfortunately, they got so busy showing off their allusions that the solid songs were buried in gimmicks.
"After the Disco" keeps the concept and fixes the mix. The album is still an exercise in style. Mercer and Danger Mouse flaunt echoes of 1970s and '80s hitmakers like ELO, the Bee Gees and the Eagles. It's more or less the same sonic terrain as the first album. But this time Broken Bells focus on the songs, not the sounds. Danger Mouse's production constantly keeps Mercer's voice in the foreground.
He sings about varieties of desperation and loneliness, about withdrawals and breakups, about longing and resignation. The songs are full of characters who are lost, aimless and uncertain; the singer offers reassurance if he can.
Broken Bells are still as openly self-conscious as they were on their debut album. This time they don't flaunt their cleverness; they let a listener discover it after the songs sink in.
JON PARELES, New York Times
Little Mix, "Salute" (Syco/Columbia)
Little Mix touched down in the U.S. last year with surprising force, scoring the highest chart debut for a British girl group's first album. But might success have come too soon for these alums of the U.K. "X Factor"? Where the women put across an up-for-anything spirit on their debut album, "DNA" — most memorably in the effervescent disco-funk jam "How Ya Doin'?" — here they sag under the weight of too many wind-swept piano ballads and booming productions seemingly modeled on Katy Perry's "Roar." Flashes of the playful old Little Mix appear in the dubstep-laced "Move" and the bubbly dance track "Nothing Feels Like You." "Competition" has a campy musical-theater quality that puts the group's new dramatic streak to good use. But more typical is the dreary "These Four Walls," about "the feeling that the end has come." What a buzz kill.
Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times
Robert Ellis, "The Lights From the Chemical Plant" (New West)
Ellis is an exacting songwriter. On his third album, the Texas native, now living in Nashville, goes to work with Tom Waits and Kings of Leon producer Jaquire King. He presents his detail-oriented narratives in a variety of settings, from bossa nova to bluegrass. As he flirts with jazz and honky-tonk, and faithfully covers Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years," Ellis is musically promiscuous but narratively and vocally precise. Is he "Texas' next great singer-songwriter," as Texas Monthly recently declared? For now, he's a disciplined and demanding young talent, an old soul of 25 years whose best songs — the title cut and the self-critical and, frankly, depressing "Tour Song" — point to a promising future.
Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer