Sara Bareilles, "The Blessed Unrest" (Epic)

Bareilles sings "Manhattan" with heavy exhaustion, over a dark, slow-moving piano, redolent of the early, elegantly pugnacious Billy Joel. That's the fourth song on "The Blessed Unrest," and it speaks loudly. It especially shouts down the songs that precede it, which are booming and jangly, songs that announce in scale what Bareilles' sweet and sometimes nervy voice doesn't always do on its own.

Still, it's a surprise that Bareilles' best song here is her most morose. She's never matched the pep of her 2007 debut single, "Love Song," a song about what sort of song she's unwilling to write. That theme — writing about writing — re-emerges here.

The album is suffused with that kind of seriousness — not the emotional sort, as on "Manhattan," but the stylistic sort. Worse, "The Blessed Unrest" isn't as smilingly eclectic as her better earlier work. "The Blessed Unrest" is all shoulder-drooping heft, and her musical choices are vexing. On "Hercules," she's Fiona Apple manquée; "Eden" conveys early Madonna, of all things; and "Islands" suggests that Enya may have often popped up on Bareilles' iTunes Shuffle.

Bareilles is hiding behind styles that aren't her own. Only on "Little Black Dress" does that strategy pay off. It sounds like an Amy Winehouse sketch. Vocally, Bareilles sounds bright, too, and comfortable —doing her familiar trick of making the melancholy chirp.


Robert Randolph & the Family Band, "Lickety Split" (Blue Note)

"Turn it up to 10 and get loud in here," Randolph sings in "Amped Up." It's a declaration of purpose: "Lickety Split" is an amped-up party album that rarely pauses for breath.

Randolph is a peerless pedal steel player, and his roots in the sacred steel church tradition surface in "Born Again," a secular love song that crosses classic gospel lyrics with Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With." Throughout the album, Randolph's leads dazzle, but the songs themselves are secondary, and he's much more forceful and personable as a guitarist than as a singer, which is less of a distraction when heard live than from the studio.

This is an album built for the jam-band circuit, foregrounding rousing blues and funk grooves, from a perky cover of the Ohio Players' "Love Rollercoaster" to the note-bending guitar jam "Brand New Wayo," one of two tracks with Carlos Santana.

Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer