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Pop reviews — week of Sept. 29

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MECHANICAL BULL

Kings of Leon

Three years after the Kings of Leon’s last record, the edgy, gravely rock foursome return in top shape with Mechanical Bull.

The album takes the band’s unique sound — the recognizable longing guitars and Caleb Followill’s growl — and adds a hint of melancholy and a stillness that gives the songs an aura of contentment.

Nervy desire and wildness is still present in their music, most prominently in Tonight, with its sexy vibes of earlier hits that hinted at mad tumbling into lust, and in the obsessive strummings of Wait for Me. The playful notes of the first single, Supersoaker, set the tone, adding a sense of giddiness to the proceedings.

Don’t Matter goes full-on rock in the beginning but is gradually imbued with a hint of Billy Joel. Temple starts out noisily and morphs into the confident stage presence of a rock star. Beautiful War rounds up the sound with a heartfelt ballad that showcases Followill’s voice. And Family Tree sounds like an old man trying to give advice to the young, who think they know better than everyone else.

Despite tackling the familiar themes of drunken nights and tentative love, the songs weave the story of a man who knows the meaning of being lost and who has finally been found. Mechanical Bull isn’t the anguished edgy ride you’d expect from Kings of Leon but a fun, stirring experience you don’t want to end.

— Cristina Jaleru

Associated Press

THE BLUEGRASS ALBUM

Alan Jackson

Amiable country singer and songwriter Alan Jackson has been talking for ages about his wish to make a straight bluegrass album. That’s the reason he signed on for Alison Krauss to produce his 2006 album, Like Red on a Rose, one of his strongest collections, but one that veered far afield from traditional bluegrass.

Not this time — there’s nothing but earthy, lonesome music-making on Jackson’s The Bluegrass Album. It boasts all the requisite fiddle, mandolin, banjo, dobro, acoustic guitar, upright bass and sweet bending harmonies that define bluegrass.

Jackson and album producers Keith Stegall and Adam Wright infuse a back-porch feel in original numbers here and savvy selections from other writers, including Jackson’s new spin on John Anderson’s 1982 hit Wild and Blue and Adam Wright’s sharply witty Ain’t Got Trouble Now.

Among his own contributions, Jackson’s Blue Ridge Mountain Song and Blue Side of Heaven demonstrate his understanding of themes that are central to bluegrass: the knowledge that life is hard, but the human spirit can rise above.

— Randy Lewis

Los Angeles Times

THE LOWLAND: A NOVEL

Jhumpa Lahiri

If you’re one of Jhumpa Lahiri’s many adoring fans, someone who is always impatient for her next book, I’m afraid I have bad news for you.

It’s here. And it’s pretty awful.

The Lowland, ostensibly about two inseparable brothers and the vastly different paths their lives take, has a scattered narrative, excessive descriptions of the natural landscape of Rhode Island, and plot twists that feel contrived and nonsensical.

The novel starts out in Calcutta, where brothers Subhash and Udayan Mitra are introduced as polar opposites. The older by 15 months, Subhash is cautious, placid, satisfied with the status quo. Udayan is daring, unpredictable, unafraid to challenge authority. They come of age amid the Naxalbari rebellion of peasants and communist radicals, which draws Udayan into its fold and irreversibly changes their lives.

It was a promising premise but it failed to deliver.

Bafflingly absent are the beautiful writing and masterful storytelling of her previous works — Interpreter of Maladies, her debut collection of short stories that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction; The Namesake, her first novel, which was adapted into a film; and Unaccustomed Earth, another collection of short stories.

Each had characters that were flawed, selfish, shortsighted — but at least they were multidimensional and a reader could understand where they were coming from. That unfortunately was not the case in The Lowland, which also suffered from an exceedingly slow pace, followed by a flurry of activity and then periodic updates over decades.

It was a struggle to get through and, in the end, it wasn’t worth it.

— Rasha Madkour

Associated Press


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