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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.

There are tracks that seem like remnants of his club phase ("Last Days of Disco"), and others that suggest lounge singer reworkings of '80s Bond movie theme songs ("Somewhere"). But the best tracks (such as "Morning Sun," or the equally great "You Know Me") are the most outsized, string-and-piano-happy curiosities that sound like the result of a collaboration between the Pet Shop Boys and Andy Williams.

-- Allison Stewart

Melanie Fiona

THE BRIDGE

Just when it started to seem as if Alicia Keys would have to remake or repurpose every hit from the '50s and '60s all by herself, along comes Canadian singer Melanie Fiona to help out with that task.

Fiona gained attention this summer with her single "Give It to Me Right," which borrows liberally from the Zombies' 1968 song "Time of the Season." Her debut full-length, "The Bridge," is filled with more splicing of old with new: As the title suggests, the derivative pop singer of the moment is all about making music that both seniors and juniors can enjoy. And indeed, if you're planning a multi-generational road trip in the coming months, "The Bridge" is a safe, inoffensive soundtrack that everyone should be able to tolerate.

Still, sometimes the all-ages edict of the album seems forced, as when the DJ scratches over a sunny '60s girl-group melody on "Johnny." And the sampling and cribbing of old songs -- a technique that works so well with hip-hop -- can come across as downright lazy in R&B. "Please Don't Go (Cry Baby)" seems sloppily cobbled together from the scraps of several Motown tunes, and "Sad Songs" is just a reworking of Janet Kay's 1979 lover's-rock classic "Silly Games" with a different name.

Moments when Fiona is free from the weight of other people's songs are few on "The Bridge," but include "It Kills Me." The straightforward R&B song, which comes toward the end of the disc, is really the first time the listener can focus on Fiona's lovely voice rather than trying to place the melody over which she's singing.

-- Sarah Godfrey

Download these "Share the Love," "Be Back Home"

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