Landline, Greg Laswell's 2012 follow-up to the celebrated Take a Bow, may sound less tortured, but there's plenty of pathos to go around. Recorded in a small church-turned-house that belongs to his in-laws, Laswell couches his songwriting in what he perceives to be adventurous production. He listened to many hip-hop records before he cut Landline, and the sound of its drums, loops, and synthetic percussion obviously enchanted him. But this is nothing like a hip-hop record. The album's first single is its opening cut, "Come Back Down," a duet with Sarah Bareilles (loudly trumpeted by Vanguard Records). Its crunchy tom-toms, repetitive piano riff, and his monotone vocals introduce it. Bareilles complements and elevates them by injecting something that approximates honest emotion with her friendly style. The most compelling thing about the track is its lyric content, which may disguise itself as an admonition, but is instead a thinly veiled indictment of a subject who's hurt the protagonist (truth be told, though, no matter how often Laswell uses the word "you" in these songs, the subject is always him). It comes to a big, nearly cinematic climax, letting the listener know that Landline is supposed to be a "big" record. There are three other collaborations with female vocalists, including "Back To You" (Elizabeth Ziman of Elizabeth and the Catapult), the jaunty, "Dragging You Around" (Sia), and the closing title track with his wife, singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson. It's the last of these, a ballad, which works best -- though all of them nicely break up what would otherwise be mostly monotonous. It's relatively simple; her voice with its plaintive appeal is a fine contrast to Laswell's overly angsty one. Tracks like "Nicely Played," with its insistent percussive layers, and "I Might Drop By," with its waltz tempo and blurred wash of instruments -- save for a piano which is crystalline -- have somewhat appealing hooks. To be fair, most of these songs have what it takes to get attention from radio programmers and online tune purveyors. Laswell's growing number of fans will be drawn to his "new" sounds, as well as his studied hooks and de rigueur emotionalism. But Landline is cloying, full of soon-to-be-dated production tricks, drab, mediocre songs -- which feel like they were written for poignant moments in film soundtracks -- and his inability to get past certain tropes he's employed since the beginning of his career. Its most damning feature, though, is that it feels like an exercise in adolescent accusation and revenge; its insincere apologies are nearly nauseating. Close listening condemns it as a trite exercise in nothing more than self-indulgence.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek