CD reviews: Mika, Gary Clark Jr., Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson


When Michael Holbrook Penniman Jr., better known as Mika, released his debut album, “Life in Cartoon Motion,” in 2007, it was a revelation for fans of intelligent pop music.

Mika’s campiness brought to mind bygone entertainers such as Freddie Mercury and Peter Allen, and songs such as “Grace Kelly” were ridiculously fun and catchy.

Fast forward five years, and Mika has released his third full-length album, “The Origin of Love.”

Where Mika’s first two LPs were over-the-top celebrations of the best parts of pop music, on this latest outing, he reels things in a bit.

The music on “The Origin of Love” is more sedate, more introspective and more cerebral than its predecessors.

If you’re looking for the campiness of “Grace Kelly,” you’ll find hints of that on tracks such as “Love You When I’m Drunk” and “Celebrate.”

For the most part, though, the feeling on tunes such as “Underwater,” “Heroes” and the album’s title track is of an artist looking inward.

While not every track is a winner, there is still enough interesting music here to warrant purchasing the album if you’re a Mika fan.

I doubt we’ve heard the last of the freewheeling, fabulous Mika we know and love, but until that version returns to the recording studio, this is a beautiful detour from his normal sound.

Key Tracks: “The Origin of Love,” “Love You When I’m Drunk,” “Celebrate”

Ever since he broke out of his hometown of Austin, Texas, Gary Clark Jr. has been described as the salvation of blues music.

Now, I honestly don’t know how much blues music is in need of salvation, but there is no doubt that this young musician definitely has something that sets him apart from much of the current crop of bluesmen.

Part of the appeal is that Clark refuses to be pigeonholed as a straight blues artist.

Make no mistake, he can coax mournful sounds out of an electric guitar that would make even the most heartless man shed a tear, but Clark is equally adept at roaring through a Jimi Hendrix-tinged rock number or a smooth R&B groove.

On “Blak and Blu” he does all of that, and he does it with a seemingly effortless swagger that calls to mind folks like Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy.

The album’s title track is a tasty bite of R&B goodness, while tracks such as “When My Train Pulls In” and “Glitter Ain’t Gold” likely would make Hendrix shake his head in a good-natured way were he still around.

This guy has complete control of his guitar, wielding it like an extension of his body.

His pleasant singing voice, reminiscent of Raphael Saadiq, is icing on this musical cake.

Forget saving blues music, Gary Clark Jr. could be one of those folks who restores everyone’s faith in music in general.

Key Tracks: “When My Train Pulls In,” “Blak and Blu,” “Glitter Ain’t Gold”

When it comes to Australian country music, there are still many out there who think Keith Urban is the be-all, end-all for that genre.

I’ll take Aussie chanteuse Kasey Chambers over Urban anytime.

After her 1999 debut, “The Captain,” went double platinum in Australia, Chambers caught the ear of many country music fans here in the U.S. when the album’s title track was used in “The Sopranos.”

Since then, Chambers has become a favorite among alt-country and Americana listeners.

On “Wreck & Ruin,” Chambers joins forces with fellow Aussie singer Shane Nicholson, who also happens to be her husband.

The pair already has one collaborative album under its belt, 2008’s “Rattlin’ Bones.” And this new album builds on the solid songwriting that was exhibited on that first effort.

There is an old-timey sound that resonates throughout “Wreck & Ruin,” almost as if Chambers and Nicholson had been listening to Iris Dement and Gillian Welch while writing their material.

There is plenty of acoustic guitar, fiddle, banjo and other elements that would be right at home on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack.

Standout tracks on this exceptional collection of songs include “ ’Til Death Do Us Part,” “Adam and Eve” and “Familiar Strangers.”

For fans of retro country and bluegrass music, this is right up your alley.

Key Tracks: “ ’Til Death Do Us Part,” “Adam and Eve,” “Familiar Strangers.”

By Devin Grant