My Dear Melancholy
(XO Republic ***)
Back before he was soundtracking Fifty Shades Of Grey, headlining Made in America, and dating Selena Gomez, The Weeknd was mysterious, spooky and weird. Specifically, with the three mixtapes the kinky Canadian love man released in 2011 that were later collected as Trilogy, he made darkly obsessive and always askew music that was massively influential on contemporary R&B. Over the years, however, The Weeknd's music lost its subtlety as he grew unabashed in his courtship of the mainstream. My Dear Melancholy is of note because it's a breakup album rife with references to his split from Gomez, and because wearing sadness on his sleeve has nudged him back toward making music that is ultimately more pleasing precisely because it isn't so eager to please. Another good thing about it: Like Diplo's recent refreshingly brief California, MDM is actually an EP, and at only six songs and 22 minutes, its self-pity doesn't have time to grow cloying. Expect to see more big-name acts putting out between-album, less-than-full-length works, as attention spans shrink and streaming services encourage artists to be more creative in how they release music. — Dan DeLuca
Sex & Cigarettes
(Def Jam ***)
Twenty-five years into a career of emotive, smoky vocals caught in the whirling winds of quiet-storm soul, Toni Braxton seems to have finally outrun marital problems, weird boyfriends-turned fiancés (Birdman?!), health scares, and reality television series to produce a stunning work that rivals her '90s best. As a matter of funky fact, Sex & Cigarettes sounds a lot like a sister album to 1996's Secrets, which contained the smash grand ballad, "Un-Break My Heart."
That's very often a great thing when Sex & Cigarettes' sirens come to call. The dynamics-rich chord changes and luxurious arrangements of the slow-jamming "Long as I Live," and the album's title tune sound of another era — one where subtlety and complexity still existed on the charts. On those boisterous cuts, as with her piano ballad "FOH," Braxton is ruminative and angry, and you can hear it through every breath. What makes "FOH" different is that she's utilizing the currency of internet slang to get her pointed ire across. Where Braxton's '90s-isms don't work — for example — is on smaller, more poppy songs such as "My Heart," an odd collaboration with songwriter Colbie Caillat that never truly or deeply delves into the magic of that muscle. Still, any chance to hear Braxton run through a cocky lyric such as "I wish that I could like you, my feelings are sincere / But every time I try to, it kinda disappears" is pretty cool. — A.D. Amorosi
Call Me Lucky
(Signature Sounds ***)
"It all comes down to the sound," Chris Smither sings. "And when you can't find the key / Spin it around on the common ground / Till it sounds like me."
"Down to the Sound" may be about the elemental power of music, but one thing's certain: The song and the rest of Call Me Lucky sound like Chris Smither, which means they don't sound quite like anyone else. Over his long career, the 73-year-old folk-blues great has crafted a style in which he manages to philosophize and tackle deep subjects in a way that flows as fluidly as his guitar playing and the music that accompanies him. For the most part it's an understated and sometimes droll conversational style that showcases a slyly entertaining way with words: "I wrecked my karma livin' way too fast / Tryin' to catch the future 'fore it's in the past," he confesses on the slide-accented "The Blame's on Me." And listen to his down-home description of just how hard it is to "Change Your Mind."
Smither offers an alternative take of "Everything on Top" — one of a handful of songs in two versions — that is uncharacteristically loud and rocking on a mostly acoustic-textured set flecked with piano and fiddle. But with Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" and the Beatles' "She Said She Said," he also delivers masterfully Smither-ized interpretations of seemingly disparate songs that make them of a piece with his own still-transfixing and thought-provoking work. — Nick Cristiano