JUANES "La vida ... es un ratico" (Universal Music Latino) 4 stars
In his most powerful and personal recording yet, Juanes returns to the darkness of his 2000 debut, "Fijate bien," but he doesn't stay there. In "La vida ... es un ratico" (Life ... is a moment) he burrows deep inside to unearth the pain and turmoil of a dying relationship - "Ratico" was inspired by what Juanes believed was the end of his marriage (he has since reconciled with his wife), and created during a year spent in a house near his childhood home in Colombia (the credits list "the mountains of Medellin" among the recording studios).
But despite the anguish, "Ratico" is ultimately about faith in love and in life, as irrational and profound as faith in God, as forceful and optimistic as its ringing rock guitars. "I'm not going to give my life to fear," Juanes sings in the opening "No creo en el jamas" (I don't believe in never). "I know I'm not alone, I know that God is here inside ... here nothing is impossible."
Juanes is unflinching in following the ricochet from bitterness to loving memory. Produced again by Gustavo Santalalla with Juanes, "Ratico" is starker than the pop-rock anthems of the star's last two recordings, whether intense rock guitar or quiet piano. No meandering poetry or pop sentiments here. "Why did it have to end like this?" Juanes falsetto-howls in "Dificil," guitar screaming with him. "Bandera de manos" (Flag of Hands), a duet with German punk rocker Campino, is a call to join against "leaders who buy arms and harvest pain."
The occasional folk and cumbia flavor adds tension, in the taut rhythms and ambivalent feeling of "Gotas de agua dulce" (Tears of sweet water), or the way the accordion darkens the cumbia-ish "Tres." On "Minas piedras" (Rock mines), a duet with revered Argentine singer-songwriter Andres Calamaro, there's even a piercing country-style pedal steel. It fits the almost unbearably painful song of a community ripped apart by landmines (an enormous problem in Colombia), where "the earth laments ... the trees are weeping" but a man with two bandaged eyes "still has hope in his hands." Blinded by love, gut-torn by pain, you keep going.
Pod Picks: "No creo en el jamas," "Minas piedras"
JOSH TURNER "Everything Is Fine" (MCA Nashville) 3 stars
Josh Turner's deep baritone is such a resonant instrument he could sing anything and make it sound good.
Yet that has been a bit of an ongoing problem. His previous two albums have had some wonderful singles but also a preponderance of ordinary, anyone-can-do-this, material.
"Everything Is Fine" starts and ends with some typical tunes, but offers a series of top-notch tracks that, combined, make this his most consistently rewarding release.
The uptick in quality begins on track three, "Another Try," a melancholic ballad featuring backing harmonies from Trisha Yearwood that complement, but don't intrude on, Turner's lead. The CD peaks on the gorgeous Anthony Hamilton duet, "Nowhere Fast," a tune that finds the common ground between soul and country and exemplifies the best traits of both.
Pod Picks: "Nowhere Fast," "The Longer the Waiting," "Another Try."
GARY ALLAN "Living Hard" (MCA Nashville) 2 stars
Gary Allan would do well to take his album title to heart and rock out more. But the nasal Allan, a Californian who has endured his share of heartbreak (his wife committed suicide), regrettably clings to a mopey, midtempo funk on his latest CD, "Living Hard." One one song he's watching airplanes zip by, wondering which contains his departing lover. On another, he can't decide whether rocking crowds from a concert stage every night is a good life or no life at all.
Notable exceptions are the ZZ Top-like "Wrecking Ball" and the country-rocker "Like It's a Bad Thing." Of the quieter tracks, "She's So California" at least has a breezy feel to make it memorable. The rest? Average country radio fodder, only slightly more interesting than, say, Kenny Chesney's banal norm.
Pod Picks: "She's So California," "Wrecking Ball," "Like It's a Bad Thing."
ROBERT PLANT/ALISON KRAUSS "Raising Sand" (Rounder) 3 stars
Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant has arguably had the most compelling solo career of any of his peers. A quarter century into going it alone, Plant has had varying degrees of commercial success and some great ("Fate of Nations") and not-so-great ("Manic Nirvana") albums, but he's remained ever curious, ever striving for musical growth.
Bluegrass' biggest star, Alison Krauss, seems to cling to a mellow groove on her own albums but she, too, has a wandering eye, having worked with Alan Jackson and constantly expresses her fondness for hard rockers like AC/DC and, yes, Zeppelin.
So the pairing of these two adventurous artists winds up a natural fit and the resulting CD is unlike any other "duets" album you might hear.
That's because it's not a traditional duet record. Some tracks, Plant sings solo; others, Krauss does. Still others find the voices intertwining like philodendron leaves cascading up a tree trunk.
The ghostly music, simply produced by T Bone Burnett, touches the bases of country, folk, blues and rock, and works best taken as a whole.
"Raising Sand" finds two bold spirits challenging one another, honoring their muses, and creating something far more lasting than the ephemeral pop hit of the day.
Pod Picks: "Rich Woman," "Killing the Blues," "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us."