North and South

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While the laid-back beachside pop of his first two albums, The Bigger Picture and Coming of Age, didn't exactly indicate a potential European superstar, Belgian singer/songwriter Jonathan Vandenbroeck, aka Milow, has since become his homeland's biggest musical export since legendary chansonnier Jacques Brel, thanks to his clever 2008 cover version of 50 Cent's "Ayo Technology," which turned the Timbaland-produced sleazy hip-hop anthem into a surprisingly melancholic stripped-back ballad, topping the charts across six countries in the process. His first LP since its colossal success, North & South ignores any temptations to repeat the trick again, and instead focuses entirely on his accomplished songwriting skills, with 11 new self-penned compositions that attempt to prove to those only familiar with his signature hit that there's more to him than reworking the back catalog of American gangster rappers. With the exception of the few flourishes of electro on "Son" and the emotive Owl City-ish opening track (which deals with the grief he suffered over his father's recent death, a theme he also covers on the wistful "Building Bridges"), the follow-up to his eponymous third effort sticks rigidly to his trademark sun-kissed acoustic sound. Showcasing his slightly eccentric tendencies, lead single "You and Me (In My Pocket)" is a sweetly sung but deceptively twisted love song where Milow wishes his true love was "a little bigger, not just big, but really fat" and "a little slower, not just slow, but paralyzed" in a deranged outpouring of insecurities, while the Joshua Radin-esque "Rambo" is an altogether more innocent and humorous tale about reality quashing childhood dreams. But elsewhere, he plays it straight on the campfire singalong "More to Town," the folk-tinged pop of "Little in the Middle," an enchanting duet with regular backing vocalist Nina Babet, and "The Kingdom," where Milow convincingly plays the country troubadour while tackling the issue of political unrest in his native Belgium. The occasional touches of surreal humor aside, North & South could be an album from any one of José González, Jack Johnson, and Jason Mraz, but what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in good old-fashioned charm. It's unlikely to reach the same heady heights as its predecessor, but it's an effortlessly chilled summer soundtrack that ultimately shows he's far from just a one-hit wonder novelty act.

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