Luke Combs, "What You See Is What You Get" (River House Artists/Columbia Nashville)
There's a familiar kind of country song that functions essentially as a listicle. A laundry list of tropes about rural life. A slide show of small-town imagery. They're a staple of the genre, an easy — too easy — go-to for performers hoping to trigger pleasure centers.
There are a few of these songs on the second major-label album by Combs, the quickest-rising country star of the past two years. "Blue Collar Boys" feels like a Home Depot marketing PowerPoint. "Better Together" is pure rural Mad Libs ("Barbed wire and old fence posts, eight-point bucks in autumn"). Apart from the cheeky "When It Rains It Pours," Combs' earlier hits deployed lyrical melodrama juxtaposed with tender reads on hard-rock dynamics. He has a meaty, frank voice that hits bluntly but without much depth, like painting with a brush lashed to an 18-wheeler. "What You See Is What You Get" is mundanely forceful, laden with chunky guitars and hard-snap drums, and just barely ambitious.
Where Combs shows the most promise is in his emergent desire to restore the genre to the high-octane pep of the 1990s, when thanks to the cross-genre theatrics of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, country music believed it was big-tent pop. "Angels Workin' Overtime," with flickers of early-career Alan Jackson, moves at a jubilant 130 beats per minute, an extremely quick clip for contemporary country. "Lovin' on You" shouts out Brooks & Dunn and echoes their line-dance-ready come-ons, and then, a couple of songs later, Brooks & Dunn show up to bemoan late-night misbehavior on the glib, uproarious boogie of "1, 2 Many."
JON CARAMANICA, New York Times
Joe Henry, "The Gospel According to Water" (earMUSIC)
A year ago, Henry learned he had prostate cancer that had metastasized to his bones. That experience colors the songs on "The Gospel According to Water," his beautiful and understated 15th album. Henry wrote the songs quickly last spring and recorded them soon after, and while their pace is leisurely and calm, they possess an immediacy and vibrancy — not an urgency, but a deliberate and earnest thoughtfulness, a wisdom, even, something akin to early Leonard Cohen or recent Nick Cave songs.
Like Cohen and Cave, Henry writes lyrics that foreground their prayer-like cadence and patterns of imagery. "There's little we can leave behind will truly mark this earth. But treachery and love are ours to keep for all they're worth," he sings in "Bloom." References to water and prayer, passing time and lasting love link these songs, as do Henry's gentle acoustic guitar picking and his son Levon's woodwinds. The songs are affirmations of mortality, full of gratitude and grace. Thankfully, Henry's cancer is in remission. That's a gift, as is this album.
STEVE KLINE, Philadelphia Inquirer
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