Estelle, All of me, Home School/Atlantic
The series of skits that weave through All of Me, the third Estelle album, involve a loose, wide-ranging conversation among several friends about relationships, education, family, careers and more. Even with the light soul-jazz in the background (produced in part by Questlove of the Roots), they have the feeling of intimate home recordings, modest and almost accidental.
It’s an odd conceit on which to hang any album, much less one by a versatile and very polished singer and rapper. But it’s maybe the right move for this comfortable, small and sometimes vague album. If All of Me is about any one thing, it’s acceptance, though it takes some time to arrive at that conclusion. The album closes with a pair of uplift-themed songs that recall the neo-soul of a decade or so ago. “I’m nice in my skin,” Estelle sings on Speak Ya Mind. “I’ve got the body God gave me, don’t want another.” After that it’s Do My Thing, a duet with Janelle Monae about individuality.
And sure, these are unfashionable choices, ones that have very little to do with the rest of contemporary R ’n’ B. And if she stuck close to them it would be notable. Estelle recalls the young Lauryn Hill at times — the gentle, loping Thank You is clear homage, and on Speak Ya Mind, Estelle sings, “I just want them to pull out The Miseducation again,” referring to Hill’s debut. But the remainder of this album finds Estelle trying on familiar poses, or unfamiliar ones that vex.
The clunky, apocalyptic International (Serious) finds her dipping into patois while guests Chris Brown and Trey Songz get to dabble in rapping — it’s centerless. But soon after that comes Break My Heart, a slinky collaboration with Rick Ross that could have come from any of Ross’ recent albums. Neither shows Estelle to her true potential. The song that comes closest to doing so finds Estelle trying on another role, but one she happens to be extremely comfortable with. Cold Crush is a delicious slice of 1983-style R ’n’ B, all drum-machine snares and synthetic guitars. But it’s never cold. That’s because Estelle sighs all over it, her voice given full spread to be sultry and a bit naughty. It’s not the style she was born with, but it’ll have to do.
By Jon Caramanica, NY Times News Service
Lambchop, Mr. M, Merge
For 20 years, the Nashville band Lambchop has pleaded nolo contendere. It started out as indie-rock — something to do with keeping things small, textured, weird, backhanded, out-of-fashion — but never sounded as if it were competing in the usual way. Instead of figuring new ways to resist and challenge, Lambchop steadily made its music more beautiful.
At the middle of Lambchop’s sound is Kurt Wagner’s finger-picked guitar and light baritone voice, throwing out trembling, tidy words like pebbles in a lake, in phrases that cut on the line between bitter and hopeful, intimate and absurd. And around that, many variables.
In the past it might have been horns or woodwinds or steel guitar. On Mr. M, Lambchop’s 11th record, the surroundings are often strings, arranged by Mason Neely and Peter Stopschinski, in lurking backgrounds or articulate foregrounds.
Those foregrounds become interludes, or full-blown alternate routes, like the second half of Gone Tomorrow, in which string phrases rise and melt into other aspects of sound — echoed tones, tiny rising and falling analog buzzes, a rhythm-section vamp, small applications of piano.