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Pop reviews: week of July 21

THE BLESSED UNREST

Sara Bareilles

Sara Bareilles sings Manhattan with heavy exhaustion, a woman beaten down. “You can have Manhattan, I know it’s for the best,” she exhales, over a dark, slow-moving piano, redolent of the early, elegantly pugnacious Billy Joel. “I’ll gather up the avenues and leave them on your doorstep/And I’ll tiptoe away so you won’t have to say you heard me leave.” She’s not snide or colorfully melodramatic — just spent.

That’s the fourth song on The Blessed Unrest, and it speaks loudly. It especially shouts down the songs that precede it, which — including the single Brave — are booming and jangly, songs that announce in scale what Bareilles’ sweet and sometimes nervy voice doesn’t always do on its own.

Still, it’s a surprise that the best song on this album is her most morose. She’s never matched the pep of her 2007 debut single, Love Song, a song about what sort of song she’s unwilling to write. That theme — writing about writing — re-emerges on the first couple of songs of this album, like an early college writing experiment.

The album is suffused with that kind of stylistic seriousness. Worse, The Blessed Unrest isn’t as smilingly eclectic as her earlier work, especially the often masterly Kaleidoscope Heart, from 2010. Those albums bore traces of cabaret, girl-group pop, college a cappella groups, built around Bareilles’ good cheer, which buoys her even in down moods.

The Blessed Unrest is all shoulder-drooping heft, and her musical choices are vexing. On Hercules, she’s Fiona Apple manque, and barely that; Eden conveys early Madonna, of all things; and Islands suggests Enya.

Bareilles is hiding behind styles that aren’t her own. Only on Little Black Dress does that strategy pay off. It sounds like an Amy Winehouse sketch, with a zippy horn-led arrangement. Vocally, Bareilles sounds bright, too, and comfortable — doing her familiar trick of making the melancholy chirp.

— Jon Caramanica

New York Times

UNSEEN

Karin Slaughter

Evil isn’t always overtly recognizable. Perhaps the most insidious type of evil is that which seeps quietly into a community, permanently scarring it.

Karin Slaughter has long examined the nature of evil, especially when it moves unseen through an area, and she continues this in her 13th compelling thriller. Unseen looks at a community under siege from crime and from violence’s destructive nature, and wrapped in this suspenseful, unflinching plot is a romance.

Unseen focuses on police detective Lena Adams, one of the most polarizing characters in Slaughter’s excellent series. Now a detective, Lena lives on the edge, inviting danger; her reckless behavior may have been responsible for the death of at least one cop. A shooting at her home leaves Lena wounded and her husband, Jared, a motorcycle cop, near death. Was it revenge on Lena for a raid she recently led on a local gang boss whom she believes responsible for a string of murders as well as lucrative drug and gun trade?

Will Trent, a brilliant Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent, is undercover as ex-con “Bill Black” who is trying to work his way into the local crime scene. Will has been hiding his assignment from Sara Linton, the physician with whom he is deeply in love. But the shooting brings Sara on the scene; Jared is her late husband’s son. Sara has always believed Lena’s recklessness led to her husband’s murder. The trip is an emotional landmine for Sara whose worry over Jared is complicated by his family’s attitude toward her and her feelings for Will.

Unseen reinforces why Slaughter’s work is so compelling. The author balances a complex plot with believable twists while sensitively exploring her realistic characters’ emotions and problems.

— Oline H. Cogdill

Sun Sentinel

ELECTRIC

Pet Shop Boys

A dozen records into a 30-plus-year career and the British synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys sound as vital, catchy and frustrated as ever.

Modern without feeling forced and filled with the melodic bounce that typifies their best work, Electric, in a word, bangs, and sees the Pet Shop Boys at their most celebratory and wittiest. Love Is a Bourgeois Construct giddily denounces love with a big thumping dance beat while in the background a men’s choir offers majestic harmony. Shouting in the Evening builds to a crescendo while Neil Tennant sings of a simple pleasure: “What a feeling, shouting in the evening.”

Most impressive is the album’s freshness, no doubt ferried along by producer Stuart Price, best known for his work with, among others, Madonna, the Killers and Scissor Sisters. In fact, were this exact record released by two handsome 21-year-olds with a hot label, the young dance freaks would go crazy. But two young dudes couldn’t make a synth-pop record so polished and seamless, one with a maturity matched only by the constant quest for surprise. Only the Pet Shop Boys can do that, as evidenced by Electric.

— Randall Roberts

Los Angeles Times



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