(Erskine / Columbia ** 1/2)
Leaving behind a massively popular boy band to become an all-grown-up superstar worthy of serious attention is difficult business, and former One Direction singer Harry Styles works hard at it. Sometimes too hard, with too many styles to choose from.
On his second outing on his own, the breadth of Styles’ interests is on display. His identity, however, is uncertain. At times, it seems mimicry is his greatest talent. The plaintive, acoustic title cut, which closes the album, plays like a full-on Bon Iver imitation. “Cherry,” one of many songs apparently inspired by the end of his relationship with French model Camille Rowe, takes a Lindsey Buckingham page out of 1970s Fleetwood Mac.
It goes on: “She” evokes Pink Floyd, with an impressive guitar workout at its close. “Canyon Moon” is a bit too on-the-nose homage to currently fashionable Laurel Canyon folk-rock. Nothing goes terribly wrong, save for the cloying, up-with-people cheerfulness of “Treat People With Kindness.” But rather than the daring act of self-revelation as it’s been hyped, Fine Line plays as a cautious effort by a retro-minded pop star not yet sure who he is. — Dan DeLuca
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
I Made A Place
(Drag City ***)
“Look Backward on Your Future, Look Forward to Your Past,” Will Oldham declares on I Made A Place, his first album of new Bonnie “Prince” Billy songs since 2011. Oldham has always used the past to address the present and the future, going back to his Palace-monikered days in the ’90s. I Made A Place often uses the trappings of old-time mountain music: stark acoustic guitars backing Oldham’s creaky voice, casual harmonies (from Joan Shelley), banjos, fiddles. But the arrangements range widely: Comforting woodwinds grace the spiritually minded “You Know The One," while “Squid Eye” is a perky, almost jangling rock song.
Oldham sees a bleak future. Climate change haunts the songs, but ecological disaster is tempered by Oldham’s humor and empathy — he sprinkles lullabies and love songs among the cautionary pronouncements. “Be sure you teach your kids to swim and navigate from stars above. / The fate of landlocked life is grim when you ignore our will to love,” he sings on the somber “This Is Far From Over,” although he later finds (some) reassurance that the planet will regenerate itself after we’re gone: The earth’s past will become its future. — Steve Klinge
Handsome Dick Manitoba
Born in the Bronx
(Liberation Hall ***)
The front man of punk progenitors the Dictators steps up with his first solo album, and, go figure, the brash singer who wears his New York-ness like a badge of honor cut Born in the Bronx in Nashville, with producer/multi-instrumentalist Jon Tiven and a bunch of Americana stalwarts.
But no, Handsome Dick Manitoba is not trying to reinvent himself as a rootsy troubadour. The music is mostly fast and rocking, spiced by sax and piano, echoing the spirit of early rock-and-roll, and fitting right into Manitoba’s wheelhouse. His first set of self-penned (with Tiven) songs is Big Apple-centric.
Manitoba is not the smoothest of vocalists and lyricists, but with him, feeling and attitude have always trumped finesse. The same holds true here, whether he’s recalling a teen romance (“Callie”) and his wayward youth in a housing project (“Magenta Street”), longing for an idealized California (“Surfside), or, on the darker side, dealing with addiction (“The Cooker and the Hit”). He also delivers a couple of solid slices of pop-soul with “Thicker Than Blood” and “8th Avenue Serenade.”
The one non-original, a timely take on P.F. Sloan’s “Eve of Destruction,” finds Manitoba at his most earnest. But have no fear, his old strutting boastfulness and “white boy jive” is on full display in “Soul Punk King of NYC.” — Nick Cristiano