Gretchen Wilson, "All Jacked Up"
Last year's "Here for the Party" put Gretchen Wilson's indelible stamp on a new kind of country -- raucous, raw and self-aware without being self-conscious. The album ended up selling nearly 4 million copies and its stand-out single, "Redneck Woman," became an instant jukebox classic. In typical fashion for the critical response to a sophomore effort, most reviews of her new album, "All Jacked Up," use her debut as a starting point, like this beginning to the enthusiastic review in Entertainment Weekly (A-): "Watching the quadruple-platinum rise of Gretchen Wilson's 'Here for the Party' last year was as encouraging a cultural sign as those Dove ads showcasing undie-clad women with non-fashion-model-proportioned curves. Here was a Nashville star more roughneck than prom queen, secure in her own kind of sex appeal, singing about whiskey, Wal-Mart, and keeping her Christmas lights up year-round." USA Today (three and a half stars out of four) agrees, saying, "Country music's hottest new star reinforces her redneck-woman persona on her sophomore album with a mix of booze-drenched honky-tonk songs and boogie-mama Southern rockers." It may sound like she's cashing in on easy clichés, the paper goes on, "But Wilson is more than a stereotype, though she sings the praises of men who dip snuff and getting so wasted you break into your own truck with a tire iron."
Critics seem happy with the album's mix of songs that play to Wilson's old strengths and those that let her stretch herself a bit. "There is plenty of the grit that brought her here, on the title cut and the roadhouse anthem 'One Bud Wiser,' as well as with Bocephus-style drinkin' music like 'Not Bad for a Bartender' and 'Rebel Child,'" writes Billboard. "But she really impresses with her stone country delivery on the ever-redneck 'Skoal Ring,' the endearingly morbid 'He Ain't Even Cold Yet' and the biting Merle Haggard duet 'Politically Uncorrect.' The record reaches its emotional zenith with Wilson's vulnerable rendering of 'I Don't Feel Like Loving You Today.'" The New York Times says, "The music is honky-tonk pumped up by Southern rock. Fiddle and pedal steel contend with the electric guitars, and Ms. Wilson cites George Jones and does a duet with Merle Haggard. She sings with her own scrappy version of their inflections, though she also invokes Billie Holiday in a hidden track, 'Good Morning Heartache.'" The Los Angeles Times, calling the album a "knockout," is especially taken with "California Girls," saying, "'California Girls' is the radio highlight, an anthem that may be even more on target sociologically than 'Redneck Woman.' Written by Wilson and John Rich (of Big & Rich), the feisty tune has one of the most irresistible singalong country choruses since Garth Brooks' 'Friends in Low Places.' It's a good-natured slap at Hollywood-model types who strut around in their 'size zeros' -- 'skinny little girls no meat on their bones, never even heard of George Jones.'"
Not everyone, though, is as charmed. While Rolling Stone admits her debut effort was good fun, it says, "She doesn't get so lucky on 'All Jacked Up,' a mediocre follow-up with nothing as great as 'Redneck Woman' or 'Here for the Party.' She does a few hasty drinking songs ('One Bud Wiser,' 'All Jacked Up'), a condescending Merle Haggard duet and a weird, jazzy version of Billie Holiday's 'Good Morning Heartache,' though it can't touch Ol' Dirty Bastard's." The New York Post (one and a half stars) is even less impressed: "After her inspired debut last year, it seemed like Wilson would be the redneck woman who was going to shake up Nashville. But on her sophomore disc she proves herself to be a pretty ordinary twanger." But even the Times, being only moderately enthusiastic, sees Wilson as a knd of savior for the genre: "This time around, Ms. Wilson has traded the class warfare of her career-defining 2004 hit, 'Redneck Woman,' for the market-tested populism of 'Politically Uncorrect' -- 'I'm for the Bible and I'm for the flag' -- and she's not as aggressive and unguarded as she was on her debut. Yet even toned down, her persona has the spunk that country needs."
-- Scott Lamb
Neil Young, "Prairie Wind"
Neil Young, back from a near-fatal aneurysm, has released "Prairie Wind," billed as the third of his acoustic records, after 1972's "Harvest" and 1992's "Harvest Moon." "Gentle" seems to be the word of choice among critics who, while admitting "Prairie Wind" isn't anything revolutionary, do lavish it with praise. The Times captures the softer side of the album, saying that "the new album is gentler and more decorous than either" of its predecessors in the trilogy, and the sound on "Prairie Wind" is "designed for comfort above all." But it also lacks edge, according to the Times: "Mr. Young is pushing toward guilelessness in these 10 songs; these are messages of nearly transcendental forgiveness that have lost their old edges of fear and anger." Rolling Stone (three and a half stars out of five) says the album reveals "his simplest music in a while, but it's effective," but does admit that there's "nothing earthshaking here -- just Neil Young getting mellow while brooding over how little time leaves behind as it fades away." Billboard seems to think the album is a little mundane but does give Young some props: "Young's shaky voice remains endearing, particularly on pleasant opener 'The Painter.' Familiar, yes, but not unwelcome."
The New York Post really digs "Prairie Wind," giving the album four stars and positing that "despite the disc's dark underpinnings, the melodies are uniformly gentle, sometimes upbeat and pretty. The lyrics, spoken in simple language, often approach poetry." The Guardian is similarly gushing, giving the album four out of five stars and acknowledging that though "it feels as if he had simply dug out his most beautiful old songs and written new words," the songs -- like "It's a Dream" and others -- "brilliantly capture the ordinary person's feeling of crushed hopes and impotence as the world spins out of control. In the autumn of his career, this is one of Shaky's best."
Time Magazine offers a fairly in-depth interview with the media-shy Young in which he discusses his health problems and the making of his new record. In response to the question of when he'll release another album, Young says simply, "I don't know. All I know is, I don't want to die."
-- Joe Charap
Sean Paul, "The Trinity"
Sean Paul, the dancehall megastar notorious for desperately pleading "for a light" on 2002's six-million-selling "Dutty Rock," has released a new album, "Trinity." Don't hate him just because he's so damn pretty, say the critics: Sean Paul's new record sticks to the formula that worked so well on previous efforts, and is a quite enjoyable dancehall record. The New York Daily News, calls "Dutty Rock" "the CD most responsible for the recent explosion in modern Caribbean music" and says that the album "both extends the pop/dance-hall style that made Paul a star and mixes in a host of fresh, jittery beats." The Associated Press does admit that "while none of the songs has quite the immediate reach-out-and-grab-you effect of 'Get Busy' off his previous album or 'Baby Boy,' his collaboration with Beyonce, there are some standouts, like the first single, 'We Be Burnin'' and 'I'll Take You There." The overall effect, says the paper, "is infectious and hard to resist," and listeners "will be dancing."
On "Trinity," Sean Paul consciously skirted attempts at collaborations with major pop and hip-hop stars, instead favoring a more authentic dancehall sound. The Guardian commends this move: "The album merits praise for not prettying up Paul's dancehall sound, at a time when it must have been tempting to add some bling for the benefit of his large American following." Similarly, Billboard notes "the lack of big-name guests may make it hard to woo new fans, but those who preferred Paul's earlier work will be happy to hear he has returned home." While returning to his dancehall roots may not be constitute something new, the New York Post argues that "Trinity" stays true to its name by possessing three distinct moods: "The first is festive and rowdy, as in the hard-charging 'We Be Burnin' and 'Breakout.' The second is defiant and self-assured, with Sean Paul assuring critics on 'Change the Game' and the title track that he's but a die-hard exponent of Jamaican culture -- not a pop singer. The third mood is somber, even melancholic, with the spiritual, gospel-tinged 'Never Gonna Be the Same' mourning the loss of loved ones." Though, as the Guardian contends, Sean Paul is the consummate loverboy -- meaning that even on emotional tracks, "Paul can't help sounding like a sailor who has just been given the freedom of the red-light district."
-- Joe Charap
Lil' Kim, "Naked Truth"
There's far more coverage about Lil' Kim's jail time available than there is critical assessment of the littlest rapper's new album, "Naked Truth." The Times is about the only major publication to weigh in with a review, but it's none too positive: "She takes entertaining shots at so-called snitches, and it's fun to hear her pretend that she hates being talked about: 'Star Jones don't like me, she cheap and I like the best/ Damn, it must feel good to Pay-less.' Yet this is a surprisingly dull album, with too many stale conceits (yet another take-off on LL Cool J's 'Going Back to Cali') and run-of-the-mill beats. Somehow, an avatar of gaudy overkill has fallen victim to an unlikely weakness: underkill." In light of the press silence and one high-profile diss, The Source's recent decision to give the album five mics, its highest award, looks ever stranger. The magazine's most recent issue features Kim splashed on the cover and gives her a long feature/interview in addition to the review. This plush treatment and softball questions -- like "You seem very confident. I don't think the public has ever seen you this confident before in your career" -- will likely only fuel the recent allegations that there was something going on behind the scenes to get her all the praise. "Everybody knows the only way to get five mics at The Source is to pay for it by taking out an enormous amount of ads or by hooking up with Dave Mays," one industry insider jokingly told the Daily News, who idly wondered: "Does it have anything to do with the longstanding romantic relationship between Kim's manager, Hillary Weston, and Source founder and CEO Dave Mays?"
-- Scott Lamb