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Classical CD reviews

Lift Your Spirit, by Aloe Blacc; Slow Me Down, by Sara Evans; The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint, by Ambrose Akinmusire.

By Jon Pareles and Jon Caramanica and Nate Chinen  /  NY Times News Service

Lift Your Spirit by Aloe Blacc.

Lift Your Spirit

Aloe Blacc

XIX/Interscope

After years of knocking around the music business, Aloe Blacc (born Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III) found his place as a retro-style soul singer. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he was a rapper in the duo Emanon. His 2006 solo debut album, Shine Through, toyed with hip-hop hybrids, Latin rhythms and bilingual lyrics — his parents are Panamanian — but he set those experiments aside. Instead, he got comfortable with the old-school possibilities of his voice, which has the frayed-denim edge of Bill Withers, some of Stevie Wonder’s twists and turns, and a little Sam Cooke grit. He also moved from hip-hop bragging to thinking about poverty, woman trouble and making a better world.

He got one break when I Need a Dollar, an unemployed man’s plaint from his 2010 album, Good Things, was used as the theme for an HBO series, How to Make It in America. He got a bigger break last year with his vocal on a song he helped write, Avicii’s Wake Me Up; pushing Mumford & Sons-style Celtic rock onto the dance floor, it became a worldwide hit.

Blacc’s own version of Wake Me Up — more folky, with a less booming beat — is on his third solo album, Lift Your Spirit. So is the self-affirmation of The Man, which became a hit through a headphones commercial and borrows a chunk of its chorus from Elton John, yet another singer Blacc can mimic. But those are among the album’s smilier, shallower songs (along with a peppy garage-rock-flavored dance challenge, Can You Do This, which has a female chorus answering him: “Yeah, I can do that.”)

On Good Things, Blacc often sang about struggles and setbacks; on the new album, he strives for positive thinking. The songs call for bootstrapping ambition, often contrasting rags and riches or invoking gospel affirmation. “It ain’t what happens to you, it’s what you do about it,” he declares in Here Today.

Pharrell Williams, who has lately become a one-man 1970s revival, supplies a hint-of-Latin, minor-key disco groove along with retro horns and strings as the producer of Love Is the Answer, a call for compassion in hard times.

Blacc doesn’t get complacent; his songs are well aware of life’s downsides. Chasing, a hand-clapping Sam Cooke update, turns out to be about gold-digging girls who are only chasing his money. The Hand Is Quicker, with jabbing horns out of Stevie Wonder, is a tale of betrayal. And Ticking Bomb, which hints at the urgency of Richie Havens, expects nothing less than universal destruction. Even Lift Your Spirit, which revamps the Jackson 5’s I Want You Back and Withers’ Lean on Me, is no simple pep talk; it warns, “It ain’t who you know, it’s who’s got your back.”

Throughout the album, Blacc sings with the kind of earthy vitality that many studied neo-soul singers don’t have the voice to match. But too often, the production — most of it by DJ Khalil — is so thoroughly retro that Blacc only reminds a listener of whom he’s emulating. He’s got more possibilities than that, if he can find a way out of the past.

— JON PARELES, NY Times News Service

Slow Me Down

Sara Evans

RCA Nashville

For more than a decade and a half, Sara Evans has been smiling through wounds, one of country music’s underappreciated tragic heroes. Fewer singers speak more directly to the dissatisfactions of middle age than she does, and none with her inherent vibrancy. In her best songs, Evans is downtrodden, but never broken.

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