Tue, Jun 19, 2012 - Page 12 News List

Classical CD reviews

By Jon Carmanica, Ben Ratliff and Nate Chinen  /  NY Times News Service

The Lion The Beast The Beat, by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.

The Lion The Beast The Beat, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Hollywood

Maybe it was Kenny Chesney who found the darkness inside Grace Potter. A couple of years ago, the breezy country beach bum took a turn to the self-lacerating on You and Tequila, one of the most devastating songs of his career. It was a duet about love and addiction, shared with Potter, and it carried both of them to desperate, shadowy places they’d not previously been.

For years before that, Potter and her band, the Nocturnals, had been pushing conservative, fundamentally polite, un-self-consciously retro 1960s rock and soul, with a touch of jam-band ooze. Hers was the sort of band that sprinkled live albums in between each studio album, and which started a rootsy annual festival in its home state of Vermont.

That version of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals was a band with a lot of muscle but no wit or savvy. There were glimmers of purpose on its self-titled third album from 2010, which had smears of grease on its rock but still felt overly concerned with decorum, despite Potter’s increasingly evident range.

The Lion the Beast the Beat is the fourth, and by far best, studio album by this band, which has finally allowed itself to try new poses and found give where previously there’d been only stiffness. By turns, it’s eerie, skittish, bruising and panting. And it touches on plenty of new sounds — on Never Go Back, the band’s chilly strut recalls Blondie; One Heart Missing recalls Kim Carnes; and the title track even suggests a hint of the art-rock churn of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (until it shifts directions halfway and begins to sound like a Bad Company cover band, one of a handful of egregious missteps on this album).

Potter, always a strong singer, is now a dangerous one, too, finding a tone that’s ragged and loose on Keepsake and Runaway. On Loneliest Soul, she peels off the vocals slowly and alluringly, letting each line settle in before starting the next.

That is one of three songs here written with and produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who adds in a bit too much vintage-organ filigree but who also encourages the band to use its guitars as weapons, and nudges Potter into more tousled territory.

At her best on this album, she calls to mind Stevie Nicks in her least drowsy phase. “I lit a fire with the love you left behind/ It burned wild and crept up the mountainside,” she sings on Stars. On Parachute Heart, which, like You and Tequila, captures love’s uncontrollable urges, she sounds like a woman getting lost, and finally taking flight:

There’s trouble in the friendly skies tonight

Love can never last when you’re flying up this high

You took the leap but I’m not ready to come down

So long baby

I’ll see you someday

When we’re both on the ground.

— Jon Carmanica, NY Times News Service

PUNCHING BAG, Josh Turner, MCA Nashville

Country singer Josh Turner has grown around a bass-baritone voice of great beauty and skill, and his producers and engineers lean in close to capture it. His lowest register is not plummy, like Tennessee Ernie Ford’s, or casually haunted, like Johnny Cash’s. It is balanced and alert; the notes come deep and grainy, almost the sound of bow on strings.

As an artist, Turner is at least half-classicist, drawn to mandolins, courtly love lyrics and the 1960s and 1980s Nashville sounds, but he is first and maybe last a larynx. This is not quite enough. His records over the past nine years, including the new Punching Bag, slide too easily into benign corniness. He’s a songwriter too, and he knowingly uses his lowest notes for the lines that sell the songs. But you can’t overuse an effect — even his most famous fan, last year’s American Idol winner Scotty McCreery, knows this — and the greater portion of Turner’s singing stays evenly bland, at one with his songwriting character.

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