CD reviews

By Jon Caramanica and Ben Ratliff  /  NY Times News Service

Thu, Nov 28, 2013 - Page 11

Danielle Bradbery, by Danielle Bradbery

The Woman I Am, by Kellie Pickler

Of all the critiques lobbied against music-competition reality shows — they’re stilted, they’re unimaginative, they’re ineffective at finding stars — the argument that they don’t reveal much about their contestants has always been the least convincing. Sometimes, record labels grow young talent in petri dishes out of public sight, but shows like American Idol, The X Factor and The Voice show all the seams, all the pimples. Who you are for several weeks in front of a national audience is very likely who you’ll be when you take a shot at your recording career.

No shock, then, that the self-titled debut album of Danielle Bradbery, the prim winner of the fourth season of The Voice in June, arrives without a scratch on it. Bradbery is 17 going on Faith Hill, singing with a precisely calibrated voice without a hint of risk. On The Voice, she was reliable to a fault with her Pam Tillis and Carrie Underwood covers: clean, crisp, dull. Her most memorable and credible performance was of Jessica Andrews’ statement of familial pride Who I Am, which made sense: It’s a young woman’s empowerment anthem.

Given that, it’s odd that the ample songwriting talent assembled for this album — Sarah Buxton, Josh Kear, Gordie Sampson and others — mostly give her songs about cutting loose: Wild Boy, about someone who “takes you on a ride like a paper airplane in a hurricane,” or Endless Summer, where she throws shade on the path not chosen: “I could have stayed in our hometown, married you and settled down with a picket fence/Would have had a couple kids by now.”

At best, this antiseptic and extremely competent album is country by the numbers. Bradbery has skipped right past the example of early Taylor Swift into choppier waters that her voice, and her mien, don’t communicate. Or in other words, she’s exactly as she was on The Voice.

It’s no slight to Bradbery to say that there was more charm in one of Kellie Pickler’s imperfect Idol performances — say, of Bonnie Raitt’s Something to Talk About — than in all of Bradbery’s rote renditions combined.

Pickler didn’t win Idol — she placed sixth on Season 5, in 2006 — but she had five-alarm personality. And while her first album didn’t quite fulfill the promise of sass she delivered on Idol, it proved to be an aberration. Since then, she’s matured into herself, releasing a string of strong albums, of which The Woman I Am is the latest. Pickler has some Reba McEntire in her, as well as some Tanya Tucker, singers who deliver rowdiness with a veneer of class, as on the title track, where Pickler perversely, and appealingly, sings softly about hard things.

She’s at her best here on Selma Drye, about her great-grandmother (“She kept a .38 Special and a can of snuff”) and Ring for Sale, about love gone sour: “I found out he’d been running around with a low-class jezebel/Now he’s got a monthly payment and I got a ring for sale.”

Pickler sees the humor in country music, and its pathos, and its pulpy core, and she sings it with whimsy and complication. Anyone who saw her on Idol could have told you this would happen.

— Jon Caramanica, NY Times News Service

Five Spanish Songs, by Destroyer

Dan Bejar, the central force of the Canadian indie-rock obfuscation project named Destroyer, issued an A-plus news release in mid-September for what might have looked like a minor record. It wasn’t very long. Here’s the first half:

“It was 2013. The English language seemed spent, despicable, not easily singable. It felt over for English; good for business transactions, but that’s about it. The only other language I know is Spanish, and the only Spanish songs I really know are those of Sr. Chinarro, led by Antonio Luque.”

That release is basically the same as his singing voice: lordly, saturnine, abstracted, probably dissembling, unreasonable, maybe even reluctant, but in search of something. It’s a position you might want to spend time with for a while.

Bejar’s audience may be limited, but it’s deep. You’re in or you’re out with the fatigued strumminess of the songs, his light tenor, and heavy word count. His lyrics can sound like sendups of rock picaresque — Dylan, Springsteen — delivered with passion or self-importance. Sometimes it sounds like an imitation of a radical act. And sometimes it is, but not the kind of radical act he’s imitating.

Five Spanish Songs, Destroyer’s record of Sr. Chinarro covers, forces him to deal with someone else’s reality, and he chose well. His Spanish fans will be gratified. (Destroyer’s previous album, Kaputt, was named the second-best record of the year by the Madrid daily El Pais in 2011.) His fans elsewhere might be introduced to a new band.

Sr. Chinarro, formed in 1990, is from Seville. Luque is, like Bejar, a kind of modern folk singer-songwriter working within indie rock, squirrelly and literary, with vague, bright-image lyrics sung in a tired voice. You’ll recognize a shared atmosphere. As it happens, they look somewhat alike.

Bejar’s versions of Luque’s songs — Maria de las Nieves, Del Monton, El Rito, Babieca, and Bye Bye — are a little more down at the heels than the Sr. Chinarro originals, but they’re honest covers of lovely songs, sung with care. There’s even a serious approximation, by Nicolas Bragg, at a surf rock meets Neil Young guitar solo on Babieca.

This could be a gateway record for someone curious about Destroyer, even more so for those who know Spanish: As he pays homage to a peer, Bejar eases up on his distancing effect.

— Ben Ratliff, NY Times News Service