What Makes You Country
(Capitol ** )
Country bro king Luke Bryan sounds a little defensive on the title cut to his sixth album, whose cover shows the 41-year-old singer sitting by a riverbank, gazing soulfully into the distance.
Bryan is the massively popular successor to Kenny Chesney as Nashville's preeminent country-pop party starter. He lays the country signifiers on thick — he's forever "runnin' bird dogs through the Georgia pines" or driving his truck across the Tennessee line — while making music far removed from traditional country, in his case with smooth R&B, a touch of hip-hop, and lots of songs about how much he likes sex added to the mix. That makes him an amiable good ol' boy with a savvy understanding of his fan base to his admirers, and an enemy of all that is authentic to detractors.
So on What Makes You Country, Bryan feels the need to reestablish his "dirt road cred" before getting on with making music that, if not for the Deep South in his voice, is indistinguishable from mainstream pop. Crowd-pleasing comes naturally to him, and he has some decent ideas, like the waiting-on-a-text romance "Light It Up" and the live-and-let-live optimism of "Most People Are Good." But he's also a cliche-monger, and Country is ultimately a patchy, too-long 15-song collection that mixes cringe-worthy howlers like "She's a Hot One" with well-constructed hits-to-be ("Drinkin' Again," "Hungover in a Hotel Room") that never let guilt or remorse get in the way of pursuing a good time. — Dan DeLuca
Luke Bryan plays Boardwalk Hall, 2301 Boardwalk, Atlantic City at 7 p.m. Feb. 23 with Kip Moore and the Cadillac Three. Sold out. boardwalkhall.com. 609-348-7000.
War & Leisure
Until his newly released War & Leisure, Pedro, California's Miguel Jontel Pimentel — Miguel to you — was an electro-soul lover man making sensual moves in the midnight hour. Though he started off needing and pleading through a conventional R&B palette with 2010's All I Want Is You by 2015's Wildheart, Miguel was getting strange with Jim Morrison-like poetry about fantastic L.A. and weird scenes inside the gold mine to go with his robo-soul. War & Leisure luxuriates in its spare, psychedelic edge while trading synths and sequencers for echoing guitars, and finds its crooner/songwriter trafficking, lyrically, in a lousy political and environmental climate.
Issues of immigration and inequity waft through the spacious "Now" like smog on a hot Los Angeles afternoon. The frisky funk of "Told You So" is a lover's lament that teaches with a whisper rather than preaches with a scream. That said, it's never as though Miguel's given up the slow sexy burn or the ribald come-on while addressing politics and consciousness. He's just mixing it up with sociocultural bon mots, as on the pre-sex epic "Pineapple Skies," and the fuzz-toned "City of Angels," the latter tale balancing the downright torrid with the unjustly tragic. With a buzz-worthy word here and phrase there, Miguel infuses War & Leisure with the vibe of a red-light news crawl, a really sexy news crawl. — A.D. Amorosi
(One Little Indian, *** ½ stars)
Bjork albums are often easier to admire than to love. She is a canny artist who chooses a stark sonic palette and theme for each project (strings for 2015's discomforting Vulnicura; voices for 2004's lovely Medulla), but sometimes the concepts make longer-lasting impressions than the songs themselves. Utopia is still rigorously conceptual — it's full of flutes, birdsong, human choirs, and abrupt electronic sounds (she again collaborates with the producer Arca) — but, as its title suggests, it's inviting and idealistic.
Utopia finds Bjork embracing hope and love in songs with unusual contours but emphatic messages. Her voice swoops and soars, rarely settling into a distinct chorus or refrain but always conveying earnest emotion. "I care for you," she repeats in "The Gate," a hymnlike song full of space and depth. "Imagine a future and be in it," she sings in the floating, transcendent "Future Forever." This is future-forward music, slightly unmoored but beautiful. — Steve Klinge