Mark Ronson - “Late Night Feelings” (RCA ***)
Mark Ronson has a thing for ubiquity. After co-creating modern party classic “Uptown Funk” with Bruno Mars, the DJ-turned-writer-producer snagged an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy for his work with Lady Gaga on the epic ballad “Shallow” from 2018’s A Star Is Born. What Ronson’s done for an encore with Late Night Feelings might not wind up as wildly omnipresent as his past successes, but its surprisingly subtle set of melodies are pervasive in their own fashion.
First, he turns collaborator-singer Miley Cyrus into her godmother, Dolly Parton, on the growly “Jolene” sound-alike “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart.” Then, Ronson and co-writer Kevin Parker of Tame Impala fame give vocalist Camila Cabello the downtempo “Find U Again.” Ronson’s teaming with King Princess on the shimmering, metronomic ballad “Pieces of Us” is lustrous and supple, as is his pairing with Lykke Li, singing the the album’s haunting title track and Alicia Keys’ poignantly soulful “Truth.”
Ronson’s late night feelings may not be as contagious as those in his past, but they are stirring. — A.D. Amorosi
Willie Nelson - “Ride Me Back Home” (Legacy ***)
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real - “Turn Off the News, Build a Garden” (Fantasy ***)
“I’ve got one more song to write,” Willie Nelson sings near the end of his new album. While Ride Me Back Home has moving moments of the autumnal, it’s clear that the 86-year-old legend is not content to coast to the finish. If Nelson is not writing much these days — the album contains only four originals, one from 1971 — he still has the touch, and he and longtime producer and writing partner Buddy Cannon know how to put together a cohesive set. Working with his usual spare arrangements, colored by Mickey Raphael’s mournful harmonica, Nelson delivers excellent versions of songs by, among others, Guy Clark, Mac Davis, and Philadelphia’s Skip Denenberg ( “Nobody’s Listening”).
Willie can also be heard singing and picking his trusty “Trigger” on his son’s ambitious and more stylistically diverse album. Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, who have worked as Neil Young’s backing band, are joined in the studio by even more musicians and present a big, full-bodied sound that encompasses ringing, Tom Petty-ish rock and swaggering country-rock as well as Orbisonesque pop and down-home rootsiness. Somehow it all hangs together, precariously so at times. Lukas has a dry, reedy voice that resembles his father’s. But he also has inherited some of Willie’s old Outlaw spirit, that urge to not play it safe and to pursue his own musical instincts, even if it goes against convention. — Nick Cristiano
Bill Callahan - “Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest” (Drag City, *** 1/2)
“It feels good to be writing again,” Bill Callahan sings on “Writing” from Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, his first album of new songs since 2013’s Dream River. “Sometimes I wonder where all the good songs have gone,” he wonders. But he needn’t: he’s written a mess of them for this 20-song double-album. Going back to his days recording as Smog, Callahan has favored skeptical, sardonic perspectives, often destabilized with humor. Now in his early 50s and recently married, he’s turned his sharp eye on conjugal happiness: These are thoughtful, patient (and sometimes humorous) songs about the surprises of domestic bliss and parenthood.
“I never thought I’d make it this far / Little old house, recent model car / and I’ve got the woman of my dreams,” Callahan sings in his gentle baritone in “What Comes After Certainty.” In “Tugboats and Tumbleweeds,” which contains a sly allusion to Smog’s classic “Cold Blooded Old Times,” he looks askance at his past. Most songs build on intertwined acoustic guitar-picking, colored with soft keyboards or marimba or lap steel; they’re spacious and meticulous and comforting. It’s good that he’s writing again. — Steve Klinge
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