Boyz II Men, “Under the Streetlight” (Sony Masterworks)
The guys who gave us “Motownphilly” in 1991 are making fun of themselves these days in a Geico ad in which they harmonize gross digestive side effects at a pharmacy. “If you’re Boyz II Men, you make anything sound good,” says the announcer. On a new CD, they also prove they can make already good songs sound very good indeed.
On “Under the Streetlight,” the Boyz — Nathan Morris, Shawn Stockman and Wanya Morris — tackle covers of classic tunes by the likes of Carole King, Sam Cooke and Randy Newman.
This is dangerous territory in the wrong hands — perhaps demanding a pharmacy visit of your own when it fails — but “Under the Streetlight” manages to give each song the Boyz’ soulful barbershop quartet treatment with respect and admiration for the originals, especially with a superb version of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.”
The trio also gets terrific assists from Brian McKnight on “I’ll Come Running Back To You”, “Tears on My Pillow” and “A Sunday Kind of Love.” Amber Riley is a welcome, sultry addition to “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is” and Take Six joins the trio on “A Thousand Miles Away.”
Boyz II Men mined the tradition of Motown boy groups like the Temptations and the Four Tops and evolved it, helping anchor the sound of New Jack Swing. They’ve reached back to an earlier time with their finger-snapping harmonies on “Under the Streetlight.”
There’s even a welcome, new edition — the original song “Ladies Man,” which is a slice of multiharmony sunshine. The Boyz may be all grown up but their skills clearly haven’t been lost.
Niall Horan, “Flicker” (Capitol Records)
From one direction to five, it’s been fascinating to listen to what the members of One Direction have been doing on their hiatus. And hold your nose if you must but some of it is really good — including Niall Horan’s latest effort.
While Harry Styles dabbles in ‘70 rock, Louis Tomlinson gets into hard-core EDM, Liam Payne embraces in-the-club-R&B and Zayn Malik explores neo-soul, “Flicker” finds Horan on the folkier side of pop.
Horan’s solo CD isn’t look-at-me flashy, but his songs are built sturdily and his warm voice is unrushed and unpretentious. “I’ve got a young heart and it’s wild and free,” he sings in one song.
Horan seems uninterested in the pyrotechnics of his 1D bandmates, preferring a John Mayer and Ed Sheeran guitar-driven sound. It’s a mature effort from an Irish former boy band boy, who had a hand in writing every song and plays guitar on several.
The 10-track CD opens with the infectious, dance-friendly “On the Loose,” but that’s not representative of the album. It’s like Horan just wants to show he can put out pure shimmering pop like anyone else — and then move on.
You won’t be able to resist “Slow Hands,” a pure hit of foot-stomping breezy pop-folk, or the duet “Seeing Blind,” where he and country star Maren Morris meld their voices beautifully.
But much of “Flicker” is airy, dreamy and delicate as it explores love with subtle guitar work, like the achingly beautiful “Paper Houses,” the gorgeous, slightly twangy “You and Me” and the excellent Fleetwood Mac-ish “Since We’re Alone.” The title song is a triumph of sparseness.
Horan has tapped some top producers — including Greg Kurstin, Julian Bunetta and Jacquire King — and they’ve decided to showcase him, unfussy and without any tricks. The album is a lot like its cover — a portrait of an artist looking straight and honestly into the camera.
Travis Meadows, “First Cigarette” (Blaster)
On two different cuts from his new release, “First Cigarette,” singer-songwriter Travis Meadows acknowledges his voracious appetites.
“I’ve been hungry like a stray dog in an old abandoned town,” he sings on the title cut, an ode to coming to terms with a difficult past.
But it’s that yearning, expressed again on “Hungry,” that makes this album crackle with electricity.
Working the fault line between country, rock and blues, ranging between bare-bones acoustic numbers and rockers, the Mississippi native lays it out there again and again.
Meadows attracted a small but dedicated following in 2010 with “Killin’ Uncle Buzzy,” tackling themes of recovery and survival with blunt candor. Still working those themes on “First Cigarette,” he breaks down the happiness he’s been chasing to its achy essence.
“I have learned to love the comfort when it comes,” he sings with hard-won grit, “like a first cigarette in the morning buzz.”
But addiction takes many forms, and on “Pray for Jungleland,” he recalls the rush of young love.
“Her in those tight jeans, wearin’ out the Dairy Queen, waitin’ on Springsteen, stereo blastin’,” he roars.
That could come off as common until the next line, five words that make the memory fresh: “Too much magic to understand.”
The closest stylistic comparison here might be Chris Stapleton, and while Meadows has a dedicated following among musicians, he hasn’t reached that level of acclaim.
If he keeps putting out music this earthy and evocative, it’ll happen soon enough. (AP)
By Mark Kennedy