Charlie Puth, the young son of Rumson, N.J., showed a real knack for glistening, hammy pop — whether it was love-lost ballads or bouncy, up-tempo numbers — on his platinum-plated 2016 debut, Nine Track Mind. But, his restlessly elastic voice with its dramatic trills, seemed to beg for something meatier, something with a little angst, a lot of soul and a less gloss than that first album. So, Puth broke out his homemade Pro Tools rig, composed 13 songs of modern and vintage-tinged R&B, invited Boyz II Men, Kehlani and James Taylor (?!) to be guest vocalists, and crafted the surprisingly subtle Voicenotes.
Still lovelorn, but jaded by the keen of teen fame (the nattering “Through It All,” the summery “The Way I Am”), Puth shoots, scores and nearly always finds the high vocal and hook-laden sweet spot between 1980s soul-chic and the abstract currency of Frank Ocean and the Weeknd. While the simmer-and-thump of “Slow it Down” could have existed alongside Hall and Oates ( Puth even samples H&O’s “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” there), the lofty, grooving “Done for Me,” is thoroughly modern and trilling. For all the leaps in era and inspiration, however, the once theatrical singer has fashioned an original, not-overly-mature voice for himself and his newfound brand of sublime soul. — A.D. Amorosi
Love is Dead
(Glassnote, *** stars)
With their third album, Love is Dead, the Scottish synth-pop trio Chvrches brazenly embraces its commercial pop side. Whereas previous records had mixed rousing singles such as “The Mother We Share” and “Bury It” with artsy and insular tracks that foregrounded their seriousness, Love is Dead is full of widescreen anthems. For the first time, the trio — transplanted from Glasgow to Brooklyn — brought in outside producers, most notably hit-maker Greg Kurstin (Adele, Pink), who worked on three-quarters of the album’s dozen songs.
While the music is relentlessly hook-filled with reliably explosive choruses, the lyrics offer a conflicted view of love, often accusatory or questioning. “Good intentions never good enough,” Lauren Mayberry sings in the seemingly chipper “Get Out.” “Weren’t we gonna be honest and weren’t we gonna be more?” she sings on the repetitive “Never Say Die.” And the National’s dour Matt Berninger drops in for an argumentative duet, “My Enemy.” Love is Dead is sometimes heavy-handed in both its joyful tone and cynical sentiments, but the friction is often fascinating. — Steve Klinge
Chvrches play Sunday, June 17, at the Radio 104.5 Birthday Bash, BB&T Pavilion, Camden NJ. $15-$159.50. 800-745-3000, livenation.com.
Back Being Blue
(Thirty Tigers ***½)
Mainstream commercial success never came for Kelly Willis in the years following her terrific 1990 debut. Since then, however, she and her husband, the estimable Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, have become one of the first couples of Americana, often performing and recording together. Back Being Blue is Willis’ first solo album in more than a decade, and while Robison produced it, he does not sing or play. The focus is on the singer and her songs – she wrote six of the 10. The result is a stirring reminder of what a talent she is.
The title song, which leads off the album, is an R&B-tinged ballad, with strings, that finds Willis wallowing in heartache: “She’s back in my baby’s arms, and I’m back being blue.” It sets the tone thematically, as Willis dwells often on romantic tribulations of various kinds. “The heart doesn’t know what the heart doesn’t know,” she confesses at one point, although she actually does a first-rate job of articulating emotion with simple, straightforward language.
Willis delivers all this with a commanding blend of torch and twang, spiced with a dash of Western swing on Ronnie Light’s “I’m a Lover (Not a Fighter)” and a rock edge on Randy Weeks’ “Don’t Step Away” and her own “Modern World.” That last one finds Willis pleading for relief from the temptations and distractions of contemporary life. She certainly managed to focus long enough to produce an album that sounds less of the moment and more like one that has the timeless qualities of a classic. — Nick Cristiano