Quick Spins: Reviews of albums by Big Kenny, Robbie Williams, Melanie Fiona

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Big Kenny

SHARE THE LOVE

Formerly the big half of the iconoclastic Nashville duo Big & Rich, Kenny Alphin is a garrulous, openhearted fellow who, as the title of the sunny benediction that closes his new solo album attests, wants nothing more than to "Share the Love." This isn't just bromidic humbug. Alphin has been an outspoken supporter of relief efforts in the southern part of Sudan. He's also been active in the movement to stop mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.

As a musician he favors melodic, genre-crossing arrangements -- country, rock and soul with a soupcon of hip-hop -- and let-it-all-hang-out lyrics long on uplift. In the barnyard stomp "Happy People" he sings of watermelon, swimming holes and barefoot throw-downs with people "pickin' and grinnin' " and "DJs spinnin'." "Free Like Me" is an ambient, blues-steeped paean to the virtues of self-determination.

Kenny can lay the down-home shtick on a little thick at times, as when he refers to himself as "a longhaired farm boy with jukebox dreams" in the mid-tempo rocker "Long After I'm Gone." In "Be Back Home," a banjo-flecked ballad with henlike squawking in the background, he raves about his granny's "fried corn and chicken bread."

As "aw shucks" as some of it is, he's as sincere as he can be, and he imparts it all with such a pleasant, self-deprecating tenor that it's hard not to be warmed by the good vibes he's spreading. Plus, here's a guy who just doesn't sing about building schools in Sudan; he goes out and does it.

-- Bill Friskics-Warren

Robbie Williams

REALITY KILLED THE VIDEO STAR

It's been 10 years since Robbie Williams, the onetime British boy band frontman and enduring tabloid staple, first attempted American crossover success. Several tepidly selling releases later, Williams may have to resign himself to being one of those uniquely British preoccupations that never catches on stateside, like beans on toast, or Sienna Miller.

Don't think Williams hasn't noticed. "Message to the troubadour/The world don't love you anymore," he intones glumly on "Morning Sun," the opening track of his new disc, "Reality Killed the Video Star." The disc's title is a play on the Buggles' famed "Video Killed the Radio Star," but Williams, who has watched reality-show singers like Leona Lewis find the American stardom he surely dreams of, couldn't sound more serious.

Williams recently dabbled in electro-pop and novelty rap, but consumer indifference may have finally freed him to make the album he wants. He has historically thrived on florid ballads, awkward puns and schmaltz, and "Reality" is happy to oblige. It's ballad-heavy and louche, its best tracks pivoting between winking narcissism and an exaggerated self-pity that, for Williams, is as necessary as air.


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