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The Mountain Goats - In League With Dragons Music Album Reviews

John Darnielle explores the humanity of wizards, sports legends, Ozzy Osbourne, and other folk heroes and beacons of hope.
“Old wizards and old athletes are the same,” John Darnielle said during a Facebook live stream at the headquarters of Wizards of the Coast, the game company that owns Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons. He was there to announce the latest record from the Mountain Goats, In League With Dragons, and his rhetoric was appropriately fanciful: “They were once magic,” he offered by way of explanation.

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Leon Bridges - Good Thing Music Album Reviews

Leon Bridges - Good Thing Music Album Reviews
The second, more adventurous album from the Texas soul singer bends toward the present while keeping the warmth of classic R&B in his melodies and songwriting.

Leon Bridges never set out to be a nostalgia act. Growing up in the ’90s, he was devoted to the R&B of Usher and Ginuwine and his earliest performances at open-mic nights in his native Fort Worth were of neo-soul songs sketched out over readymade beats. Though his debut album, 2015’s Coming Home, was a study of early ’60s soul music written at the altar of Sam Cooke, Bridges strives to be considered among his contemporaries as well as his forebears. He’s shared bills with One Direction expats, appeared on songs with Macklemore and ODESZA, and popped up in a music video with Portland rapper Aminé.

Perceived obligation pulled Bridges into the fold of traditional soul music, he’s said: As a young singer considering the profound legacy of black musicians like Cooke and his peers, Bridges felt compelled to pay them homage. If Coming Home was a remittance of dues, then, Bridges’ sophomore album, Good Thing, is a widening of horizons. His music remains broadly “retro” with a veil of analog fuzz built into the tracks, horn licks and references to the American South, and those buttery, laid-back vocal runs that drew a line from Bridges to his idol in the first place. But his temporal fixation has loosened, making room for a more elastic, eclectic approach to songwriting that feels perfectly contemporary.

This new adventurousness is most apparent in songs like “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)” and “You Don’t Know.” The former, a flirty, guitar-heavy funk number with a winsome opening line about being hotter than Texas, reveals its affinity for pop with plummy string synth and a bouncy four-count intro that tips its hat to Pharrell. Right on its heels, the equally upbeat “You Don’t Know” pairs Bridges’ dreamy falsetto with a boisterous disco track. These are the first entries in Bridges’ catalog that are, without question, meant for dancing, full of hints that he’s gunning for a spot in the same pop radio pantheon that he worshipped as a kid. In this pursuit, producer Ricky Reed—who in the past year has worked with Kesha, Maroon 5, and DNCE—is a worthy partner. It’s easy to point to Bridges’ major label credentials and call his crossover a commercial ploy, but with his upper-range theatrics and ineffable charisma, he makes a convincing pop vocalist.

The biggest payoffs on Good Thing aren’t born of its highest-energy moments, but of the tender touches in Bridges’ voice. Part of Coming Home’s charm was its leading man’s sweet, simple take on romance. Bridges wanted nothing more than to be a better man for his baby, to swim the Mississippi River to prove his love—heartwarming, if quaint-sounding, sentiments. On Good Thing, Bridges has kept his heart on his sleeve but updated his parlance to something a little less affected, a little more believable. On standout single “Beyond,” he gushes about seeing his partner’s face in the light of day, not just her body at night. On “Forgive You,” a stunning, sweeping offering of absolution, he captures the exquisitely affecting memory of sliding a pillow under his sleeping lover’s head. “Shy,” a lovely slow-burner, meets introversion with patience and compassion.

And notably, on this record, Bridges spares us the euphemisms when it comes to sex: “Sometimes I wonder what we’re holding on for/Then you climb on top of me and I remember,” he sings on “Mrs.” He remains the gentleman and doesn’t elaborate much further—but it’s clear that what he’s singing about here is real love, both the physical and the emotional of it, where before he was caught up in the idea of courtship. And while Bridges may still harbor old-school fantasies about wifing and child-rearing (“Will she have my kids/Will she be my wife?” he wonders aloud on “Beyond”), he’s speaking about them in language that feels like his own, instead of in words borrowed from generations past. That authenticity makes the difference between songs that are charming and songs that are genuinely moving. For Bridges, it’s the difference between being an act and being an artist.

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