Nick Jonas, "Last Year Was Complicated" (Island)

Jonas really needs to learn to let loose in his music. As an actor, he has happily taken risks in recent years, playing ruthless computer hackers, murderous fraternity boys and even an MMA fighter struggling with being gay. As a singer, though, Jonas sounds more restrained than ever on his new album. He sounds like a guy painted into a corner.

Granted, it's a very plush corner — hit-filled and well-furnished by producers like Max Martin and production duo of the moment Mattman & Robin, who have recently worked with Gwen Stefani, Selena Gomez and Carly Rae Jepsen. But it's a corner, nonetheless, one where Jonas sings plaintive soul in all sorts of scenarios.

Sometimes it's happy, like on "Good Girls," where Jonas uses his sweet falsetto to take the breezy, R&B-tinged dance pop to the next Justin Timberlake-like level. Sometimes it's sad, like on the piano-driven ballad "Chainsaw," maybe the most direct reference to his breakup with former Miss Universe Olivia Culpo last year. "I'll take a chainsaw to the sofa where I held your body for so long," Jonas sings, in what could be the follow-up to "Chains."

And it all works just fine, with the only real clunker coming with "Touch," as the complicated rhythms seem to trip up Jonas' smooth delivery.

But it's telling that what sets the new single "Bacon" apart from the pack is when Jonas brings in Ty Dolla $ign to sing the bridge and gives it a warmth and a swagger that had been missing up to that point. While Jonas is soulfully singing "throw some bacon on it" to add to the fun, Ty Dolla $ign sounds like he's having actual fun.

Sure, life can get complicated. But too often, Jonas is focusing on that while trying to deliver songs that are nice and easy.

Glenn Gamboa, Newsday

Shawn Colvin & Steve Earle, "Colvin & Earle" (Fantasy)

Colvin and Earle have a lot in common: They're both in their early 60s; they were prominent in the alt-country/folk-music nexus in the 1990s (although Earle started in Nashville much earlier); and they share writerly sensibilities. But whereas Earle is a gruff roots rocker with a radical spirit, Colvin is a delicate, mellifluous singer-songwriter. "Steady On" is one of her signature albums; "The Revolution Starts Now" is one of Earle's.

Those contrasts are highlighted on "Colvin & Earle," their first collaboration. Earle's gruffness often supersedes Colvin's clarity, even when the vocals are evenly balanced in the mix. The songs, most of them co-written, skew toward his rootsy twang with a dose of gospel fervor. Produced by Buddy Miller, the album has a loose, live feel, and their cover of the Stones' "Dead Flowers" sounds a bit like they're working out the harmonies as they go. That spontaneity can be charming, but it doesn't always allow the two to mesh.

Steve klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer

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