Cassadee Pope, "Frame by Frame" (Republic Nashville)
Pope was the first breakout star on "The Voice," but can she duplicate that success without the network TV help? Her debut seems to say "not yet." Pope, who had a major-label deal before with the pop-punk band Hey Monday, may want to claim a country base, but her vocals are still closer to Avril Lavigne than Carrie Underwood. That makes songs such as the single "Wasting All These Tears" feel hollow and misplaced, especially when placed against the genuine-sounding acoustic ballad "11." Pope is likable and has a nice-enough voice. Unfortunately, she rarely sounds believable here.
Glenn Gamboa, Newsday
Sting, "The Last Ship" (Cherrytree)
Ambitious but unalluring, Sting's first collection of new music in a decade is in fact the score to a musical of the same name slated to open on Broadway in 2014. It tells the story of a seafaring man who returns to his homeport, Wallsend in northern England, just as its storied shipyard is closing. Sting, born in that same Tyneside town, pours on the local flavor, often singing in a pronounced Geordie accent. But "Dead Man's Boots," "The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance" and other numbers work better as stories than as songs.
The tone is largely somber, with only "What Have We Got?" naturally suitable to song-and-dance. At times evocative, "The Last Ship" is marked by musical intelligence. But it resists easy boarding.
David Hiltbrand, Philadelphia Inquirer
Sleigh Bells, "Bitter Rivals (Mom+Pop)
"Bitter Rivals" is the third album by this New York duo — singer Alexis Krauss and guitarist-producer Derek Miller — that emerged fully formed four years ago with a straight-ahead concept: pulverizing guitars, block-rocking bass, sweet but durable vocals. It was music for construction sites and MMA bouts, shockingly intuitive and fresh.
Imagine the migraines, though. This album is faithful to the band's idea, but toned down: Miller's guitars are less full and more abrasive, and the music has less swing than it did a couple of years ago, even though at this album's best it suggests turbocharged R&B more than either of the group's prior albums did. On a couple of songs, "You Don't Get Me Twice" and "Sugarcane," Krauss toggles between a brassy bark and a saccharine coo.
There are still small howitzers exploding here and there — the savage "Minnie" recalls the band's earliest, scariest songs. But the last third of the album shows off gentler impulses — "To Hell With You" is a love song, and "24" sounds like a new-age remix of a 1990s Janet Jackson number. This is the sound of Sleigh Bells catching its breath, and a reminder that warfare is more fun.
JON CARAMANICA, New York Times