Justin Timberlake, “Man of the Woods” (RCA Records)
Dare I say it — but Justin Timberlake, you have failed us.
The superstar singer produced epic solo albums with 2002’s “Justified,” 2006’s “FutureSex/LoveSounds” and 2013’s “The 20/20 Experience.” And though he tripped over his own disco ball on the second part of “20/20,” released seven months after the original, he rebounded with “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” — a song that can still put you in a good mood.
Unfortunately, though, Timberlake not only missteps on “Man of the Woods,” he crashes and burns. He’s a singer lost in the woods.
While some of the 16 songs are enjoyable, some feel like leftover efforts from “FutureSex” or “20/20,” including “Midnight Summer Jam” and “Breeze Off the Pond.” It’s almost like he rushed an album to sell around his Super Bowl halftime show — probably the best platform to help push new music for an artist with more than 100 million viewers watching closely.
Listening to the disappointing project is a hard pill to swallow since Timberlake was once an idol on the level of Beyonce, launching hit after hit and working the stage like a passionate veteran, all while expanding and growing his overall sound.
But there’s no way to justify “Man of the Woods” — the saddest part about the album is that some tracks are painful: The title track is unbearable, while “Flannel” is almost as bad — coming off like an awful lullaby.
Timberlake recruited The Neptunes to produce most of the project, but clearly Pharrell was too focused on producing movies and film scores because he doesn’t bring the right heat. Timbaland is part of the album, like Timberlake’s last three albums, finding success on some of the songs. But he’s not always on point: First single “Filthy” still sounds like a hot mess.
Timberlake does have some good tunes here, thanks to country superstar Chris Stapleton. The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter co-wrote the album’s best songs — the Alicia Keys-featured “Morning Light” and “Say Something,” where Stapleton also provides vocals.
But Timberlake’s problem on “Man of the Woods” is he’s trying to craft a rootsy sound like Stapleton’s AND keep you on the dance floor. But instead of rocking your body, you’ll want to cry yourself a river.
Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa, “Black Coffee” (J&R Adventures)
Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa’s third studio album of mostly soul and blues sticks to the formula of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” and it serves them well.
Hart, a powerful singer also capable of nuance, is a good fit with Bonamassa, a guitar whiz with a wide range of sounds. They are bonded by their shared intensity, and the well-chosen repertoire, including many lesser-known tunes, gives them 10 opportunities to realize their potential.
Etta James songs are a staple of the duo and here they take on “Damn Your Eyes,” from 1989’s “Seven Year Itch,” one of James’ multiple “comeback” albums across the years. R&B diva Lavern Baker gets two nods, “Soul on Fire” and “Saved,” while “Lullaby of the Leaves,” a ballad with a scorching Bonamassa solo a la Gary Moore, dates back to the early 1930s.
Other songs include “Joy” from Lucinda Williams, Kansas Joe McCoy’s “Why Don’t You Do Right,” and the title track, Ike & Tina Turner via Steve Marriott.
Horn arrangements from Lee Thornburg, tasteful backing vocals and excellent keyboard parts from Reese Wynans, who used to play with Stevie Ray Vaughan, all help “Black Coffee” percolate into a tasty brew.
Album closer “Addicted” is a real gem, originally released in 2007 by Austria’s Waldeck. It has elements of a James Bond theme, shades of the tango and, unsuprisingly, a certain European vibe. Hart imbues it with passion, as do the Bonamassa and Wynans solos.
The world is full of little underappreciated treasures. If Hart & Bonamassa and producer Kevin Shirley can keep finding them, there’s a bright future in the grooves for more albums like this truly fine effort.
Calexico, “The Thread That Keeps Us” (Anti-Records)
If the atomic scientists were listening to music when they recently moved the Doomsday Clock up to just two minutes to midnight, it may well have been Calexico’s “The Thread That Keeps Us.” Poignantly apocalyptic in places but with glimmers of hope and romance, the album would also be ideal for moving the hands of the clock a few minutes farther from disaster, hopefully soon.
Now a septet, the Tucson-based Calexico recorded their ninth studio album in northern California and the change has done them good. Singer/guitarist Joey Burns says “there’s a little more chaos and noise in the mix” but, if anything, those elements help consolidate the harmony among the sounds.
Opener and first single “End of the World With You” starts like a 1987 U2 song with a touch of The Replacements and sets the tone with mentions of “the age of extremes.” The next couple of tracks, “Voices in the Field” and “Bridge to Nowhere” appear to reference the California fires, while the slouching, funky “Under the Wheels” is even darker, worried about “the war machine/always someone else’s scheme.”
The Latin influences stay close to the surface on several tunes but rise up on “Flores Y Tamales,” a bittersweet tale in Spanish about love and dreams difficult to fulfill. Three brief instrumentals keep with the mood — “Shortboard” is the most effective and “Unconditional Waltz” the most melodic.
Some tracks toward the end sound a bit scattered but emotional closer “Music Box” synthesizes the sentiments expressed across the rest of the album — “When the world goes dark/I’ll always be close by.”
Calexico taps into the calamity of the times on “The Thread That Keeps Us,” but finds that not all of the tapestry is in tatters. (AP)
By Mesfin Fekadu