BRIAN CULBERTSON He seems like such a nice guy, but composer-keyboardist-trombonist Brian Culbertson should kick the shit out of whoever stuck him with the “smooth jazz” tag. True, Culbertson’s latest CD, Dreams, is a velvety, late-night baby-maker, but dig a little deeper into its hypnagogic grooves and you’ll find solid and confident grounding in funk and R&B. Unlike smooth jazz atrocities such as Chuck Mangione, Culbertson has no interest in concocting a pop hit, and though he frequently relies on suave and shimmery vocals, the kind of hired guns he turns to are Neo-soul luminary Musiq Soulchild, R&B stalwart Ray Parker Jr. and fatback funkateer Bootsy Collins. Culbertson’s high-water mark remains his 2008 LP Bringing Back the Funk, which cross-breeds sunny Ramsey Lewis-styled melodies with uplifting Earth, Wind & Fire choruses, swinging Jazz Messengers gospel and the exuberance of pre-plastic surgery Michael Jackson. Culbertson’s recent turn to mellow and romantic vibes seems like he’s forsaken funk for the time being. Yet, his compositions sway and breathe while hanging onto the heartbeat of R&B, proving that “smooth” shouldn’t be featureless, and that “adult contemporary” needn’t mean dead and buried. $74.70-$196
SHOOTER JENNINGS Shooter Jennings has dabbled in experimental metal, cut his teeth on Southern rock and written songs inlaid with jazz, blues, even R&B, and it all mostly works, but when he dives into the alleys of outlaw country, the son of Waylon and Jessi shines. During the past decade, Shooter Jennings has honed his sound and cleared a naturally genuine path that’s all his own. His new album, The Other Life, opens with the oddball track “Flying Saucer Song,” which arguably could be a Pink Floyd b-side, and then rips into honky-tonk ethos and relishes in it. The record, though uneven, further evolves and expands his rep. Gospel flourishes check in and piano-inflected ballads rear their heads, while Jennings sings about gunslingers and lonesome cowboys, and disses fake, prepackaged “pretty boy” country singers.
FLEETWOOD MAC Fleetwood Mac released a new EP to coincide with its current tour, but the anorexic Extended Play consists of just three Lindsey Buckingham cast-offs and Stevie Nick’s sun-dappled “Without You,” which dates back to the couple’s pre-Mac duo Buckingham Nicks. More telling, the tour supports the 35th anniversary reissue of the iconic 1977 LP Rumours. All early Mac iterations, including Peter Green’s hard blues incarnation and Bob Welch’s alchemical pop-psych machine, are ignored. Indeed, all that remains in the current repertoire of key songwriter (and hold-over from the Welch era) Christine McVie is the Bill Clinton ’92 campaign anthem “Don’t Stop.” To be fair, though songs from the 1975 self-titled LP and Buckingham’s fussy, coke-fueled masterwork Tusk make the cut, the Mac’s set list revolves around Rumours. How can it not? Produced when the group was a snake pit of jealousy and betrayal, Rumours is unparalleled pop that makes private pain both universal and anthemic. Reviews of the current tour are split between “recaptured magic” and “ghastly wax museum.” Yet, such a bipolar schism is fitting, coming from a band that crafted an enduring and gleaming pop surface over the hot mess wreckage of their lives. $49.50 - $139.50
LORD HURON With the grand instrumental brushstrokes and elegant harmonies of two EPs and 2012’s debut full-length, Lonesome Dreams, this Michigan-via-L.A. band has been accused of riding the coattails of Fleet Foxes and My Morning Jacket. While there are surface similarities, Ben Schneider’s pop songs have more compelling textures than Robin Pecknold’s, and the twangy elements that Jim James left behind long ago work to ground Lord Huron’s music in a solid foundation of non-cheesy Americana, aka the more interesting Western variety. The textural touches the band taps into even roam a bit farther in places, like the afro-beat accents lurking in the backdrop of songs like “Time to Run” and “The Man Who Lives Forever,” or the tropicalia vibes in “Lullaby.” They suggest some intriguing future avenues for the band to venture down later, but for now, Lonesome Dreams, with its easy melodies, rich textures and Schneider’s narrative fondness for finding succor in the West’s wide open spaces, seems custom-built for long drives with the landscape and past rolling by.
JOSH RITTER & THE ROYAL CITY BAND Treading the waters of folk and Americana, Josh Ritter creates musical hooks and tight arrangements that are deepened by narrative. The singer/songwriter’s last album, 2010’s So Runs The World, was first released in Ireland before crossing the pond so that we Americans could ponder the soulful storytelling on tracks like “Change of Time” and “Folk Bloodbath.” No stranger to Blumenthal Performing Arts’ McGlohon Theater, where he’s sold out shows in the past, Ritter returns this time to the bigger venue, Knight Theater. His newest record, The Beast in its Tracks, was released earlier this year. In large part, the album is inspired by his divorce from fellow musician Dawn Landes. But don’t go thinking this is a tear fest. Though composed at a difficult time in Ritter’s life, the album is hopeful despite the gloom and shift of emotions.