Monday, November 26, 2007

Aretha Franklin - Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets with the Queen (Arista 2007)

Aretha. Duets. Post-1980. Predictably mixed bag. But you already knew that much, didn't you?

Two new duets, with Fantasia and John Legend. Perfectly matched. 'Tasia and the Queen riff on the older-gives-advice-to-younger trope, to superb effect: the Underdogs (lots of contempo R&B, but more importantly for these purposes the Dreamgirls soundtrack) have the deftest, lightest touch behind the boards, the young'un's not cowed an iota in the presence of such a - THE - legend, and the song's a gem too. Light'n'lovely'n'one o' my favorites of '07. Legend, meanwhile, finally cuts out the drippy balladry for 4 minutes and actually gets his fuckin' JB on, all guttural funky-like. Sure, it's synth percussion, but it's synth percussion that knows from its "Mother Popcorn." It's called "What Y'All Came to Do," and it should be.

"Jumpin' Jack Flash" ain't a duet; Soto's pointed out that Ronnie Wood's more visible on it than producer Keef. But it's entertaining-enough junk nonetheless. "Nessun Dorma" isn't a duet, either - performing with the New York Performing Orchestra at the Grammys doesn't make it a collab. I'm in the minority of those who actually like 'Re's take on opera, what can I say? Pipes pipes pipes! "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves" may spotlight Lennox, but owes more to Stewart. "I Knew You Were Waiting" shows up in a weaker, possibly Euro, mix, but nothing can defeat it; this is one of Narada Michael Walden's career peaks (Diane Warren's, too - she co-wrote) (hell, George Michael's, for that matter). Luther's "Doctor's Orders" (a full decade after he produced some of her best sides of the past 30 years) is a throwaway, and the Bobby-featured MJB duet, "Never Gonna Break My Faith," is well-intentioned creamed corn. But the other MJB feature, "Don't Waste Your Time" (from the highly underrated Mary) is a sublime soul summit (I know how that sounds, but really, it IS - this shit smolders).

What else is there? A pair from a VH-1 Divas Live concert (pleasant enough but utterly inessential); Sinatra sounding old while the Queen shows off her jazzy chops; great turns from Elton (surprisingly good at ceding the spotlight), Michael McDonald, and George Benson; and the glorious mess that is "It Isn't, It Wasn't, It Ain't Never Gonna Be," wherein you get to hear Aretha sing over faux-New Jack Swing and engage in vocal catfighting with La Whitney while Narada referees.

You don't necessarily need this, but should probably want it - for its good and its weird. I've got a feeling that I'll probably pull this off the shelf more than a little. B+

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Comfort music

Sometimes, you just need the musical equivalent of comfort food. Today it's Yahoo! Launchcast's 1980s Country channel, which is banging out one great song after another, and I don't even know a good half of 'em. To wit, the first ten offered up:

Emmylou Harris, "Beneath Still Waters"
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, "Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper's Dream)"
Kathy Mattea, "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses"
Highway 101, "Somewhere Tonight"
Earl Thomas Conley, "Fire and Smoke"
Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris (The Trio), "To Know Him Is to Love Him"
Steve Wariner, "Some Fools Never Learn"
John Anderson, "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I'm Gonna Be A Diamond Some Day)"
Lee Greenwood, "Somebody's Gonna Love You"*
Larry Gatlin, "Houston (Means I'm One Day Closer to You)"

No big pop crossovers, no artists well-known outside of country (save for the ladies of the Trio), just good mainstream '80s country. I love this stuff.

*Admittedly, this one kinda sucks.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Usher featuring Ludacris - "Dat Girl Right There" (leaked 2007)

It's been some time since a first listen to a track really made me feel like my head was about to explode, but this new Usher track (thank Vibe's website for streaming it) did it. Sounding nothing like you expect from Rich Harrison (cf. "Crazy In Love," "1 Thing") - or one of the biggest R&B stars in the world, for that matter - this is on some seriously other, avant-garde shit, with its bizarre clattering synths sounding for all the world like Underground Resistance produced the track or something. WEIRD. And pretty interesting - and good, too, I think.

George Strait, "How 'Bout Them Cowgirls" (It Just Comes Natural, MCA Nashville 2006 / 22 More Hits, MCA Nashville 2007)

At the start of this year, I said, in a review of King George's It Just Comes Natural:

“How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls” is a case in point: Strait’s been happily married to his high-school sweetheart for around 35 years, yet this airy, steel-guitar-kissed ode to cowgirls sounds completely honest and believable coming from his golden throat. (It helps that the song’s not a Trace Adkins-esque lust-charged ode but a simple “Aren’t they great, aren’t they somethin’?” tribute.) No one evokes the wide-open spaces of the North American plains the way Strait does, and no one does it better, either. It’s his best single song since 2001’s “Run.”

I'm glad I got this one right (it was, in fact, the only song on the album I made a point of singling out for praise). I've been listening to it quite a bit lately, due to his performance of it on the CMA Awards and its lead-off position on the new 22 More Hits (quibble with that album: where the hell is "Give It Away"?), and it's a sure bet for my Nashville Scene ballot - this is near-perfect country music, contemporary and timeless (cliché but true). Hell, but for a few production tweaks, this damned near could've come out 30 years ago. Tony Brown mixes a subtle string section in with the song's inherent, necessary twang expertly, while Strait gives yet another assured, lovely (really) vocal to a lyric that deserves it. This isn't just an ode to cowgirls, but really to all independent women - it's almost the gender-flipped version of Shania's "She's Not Just A Pretty Face," only better. Thank God Strait's still making records like this, because someone needs to be, and it might as well be the one who's best at it.


Anton Corbijn's first feature film, Control, looks as great as you'd expect from a man whose career has been built on the iconic photographs and videos he's shot for (most notably) U2 and Depeche Mode. The cinematography and image composition are often stunning, and it's shot in gloriously bleak B&W. It also features a pair of sparkling performances from newcomer Sam Riley (as Joy Division's doomed Ian Curtis - and if you think his acting is good, his spot-on singing might be even better) and the always great Samantha Morton (as Curtis's wife Deborah, on whose memoir the film is based). Control's chief fault is its screenplay, which is mostly - ironically enough - black and white, with no shades of grey. This is largely Deborah Curtis's story, and that's to the film's detriment; some further examination of the balance of power in Joy Division, for example, would've done nicely. That said, I'd love to see what Corbijn could do with a story from scratch. B-

Michael Clayton is a classic-feeling Hollywood film, very '70s. It's twisty and layered, features a slew of dead-on performances, and is ably directed but more importantly superbly scripted (both by Tony Gilroy, screenwriter of the Bourne films). It's even got the best score I've heard in years from James Newton Howard, all ambient and Moby-like (when it comes to scoring, that's a good thing). George Clooney does his best work as an actor here, nailing all the nuances in a lawyer both more complicated and simpler than he first seems. Tilda Swinton is great, as is Sydney Pollack (when did he become a more interesting actor than director?), and Tom Wilkinson is ridiculously fine as the lawyer who goes off the rails (and grid) and sets the film's main story in motion. Clooney and Wilkinson should be locks for Oscar nods, and I'd be pleased for Swinton to receive one as well. The gorgeous cinematography, script, and direction should get similarly nommed - and Michael Clayton also should be up for Best Picture, 'cause it's that damned good. This is as good as Hollywood gives these days; this might be the year's best film. A+

Everything you've read and heard is true: Joel and Ethan Coen are, in fact, back. No Country for Old Men falls somewhere on their spectrum between Blood Simple and Fargo, but might be better than both of those. This very bloody film (it could've been titled There Will Be Blood, as could've Eastern Promises) holds within it a shockingly original adapted Coens screenplay (from Cormac McCarthy's novel), assured, top-of-their-game direction, some of Roger Deakins's finest cinematography ever - and that's saying a lot, and a performance of stunning magnitude from Javier Bardem (it's amazing to consider that this is the same actor who so ably embodied famed gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in 2000's Before Night Falls). Tommy Lee Jones also turns in superb work; his well-creased face says more than many actors can with 200 pages of dialogue, but give Jones some dialogue and he's better still. If Michael Clayton isn't the year's best, then this is. A+

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Wynonna - "She Is His Only Need" (Wynonna, Curb 1992)

This Dave Loggins composition verges on twee at times, and Tony Brown's production of it - while lovely - is a bit more clean-and-shiny, perhaps, than best befits the song. Yet it comes off as kinda-sorta tossed-off genius, and that's almost solely due to Wynonna's perfect vocal. On this single from her first post-Judds solo album, all of Wy's gifts are in evidence: the strong sturdiness of her voice, her surprising range (check the "without her" in the chorus - it's not often she sings notes that high), her ability to caress a lyric just as easy as growling it. (In fact, about the only talent we don't hear on this is that deliciously bluesy growl.) "Need" is a tender, dare-I-say touching song, and Wynonna knows exactly what to do with it. A lesser singer could easily make this sub-Celine Dion glop, but Wy sends it to the clouds while keeping one foot firmly planted on the front porch.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Garth Brooks - The Ultimate Hits (Pearl 2007)

The biggest rock star of the '90s wasn't Kurt Cobain, or 2Pac, or Bono: it was Garth Brooks. He sold more albums than anyone, sold more concert tickets than anyone, and was larger than life in a way that even the late Cobain and 2Pac weren't after their deaths. (They may seem like legendary, epic figures now, over a decade since their passings, but there's still a huge swath of America who doesn't know who they are - but you can bet those people know who Garth is.)

His songs struck a chord in America, as Garth sang about everyday men and women in much the same way that Springsteen did in the '80s - he was that kind of rock star. The fact that he was singing country music made his feats all the more impressive. We'd never seen anything like Garth, and probably won't again.

And God, he was good.

There hasn't been a good summation of his career in some time, though. 1994's The Hits has been out of print for years, and those Limited Series boxed sets (particularly the second one, grrr) are just his original albums, barely tarted up and repackaged. So it's about damned time for The Ultimate Hits (understatement has never been Garth's forté), 30 honest-to-God HITS plus four obligatory new songs AND a DVD with 33, count 'em, videos, many of 'em newly-made. It's selling for cheap, too, and not just at Wal-Mart. If you wanna learn something about the past 17 years of country, and/or the biggest-selling solo artist in U.S. history (he recently passed Elvis - again), you need to pick this up.

Garth's hits are largely impeccable; he manages to connect with listeners in a way that few before him have to such an extent. Kenny Chesney, say, seems like a fun guy you might wanna throw back a few cold ones with, but Garth is YOU/ME/US. He sings universal truths with a touch that gets 'em across - who with a heart can't relate to "Learning to Live Again" or "In Another's Eyes" (a lovely duet with his wife, Trisha Yearwood)? And his cowboy songs are superb, from "Rodeo" to the Chris LeDoux tribute "Good Ride Cowboy."

Is he cornpone more often than not? Sure, and that's yet another part of his appeal: Garth Brooks is kind of a big dork, that guy who works in the grain mill and shows up at the local bar from time to time, perhaps occasionally hitting on that pretty cocktail waitress he'll never get. He's an expert of making himself (through song) seem like nothin' special, even while we all rationally know that he's precisely the opposite. It's Garth's ability to make himself seem like "jes' folks" that's made him a millionaire so many times over.

Oh, and his two big covers - of Billy Joel's "Shameless" and Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love" - are sensational. Garth actually undersings the latter (which he almost never, ever does), coaxing out the lyric's tenderness with subtlety. He takes the reverse tack to the former, to great effect: leaving everything out there is kinda shameless, isn't it?

For better and worse, the 34 songs collected here chart the course of country since 1990 - more for Garth's massive influence than for trend-watching. Garth is his own trend. We should all be this unhip. A

Friday, November 09, 2007


-I really need to write about Wynonna, and Juice Newton. Why is there still not a great two-disc Judds comp, by the way? Inexplicable. (There is a decent single-disc on Wynonna, and a great single-disc on Newton, both of which I plan to discuss sooner rather than later. But you know how that goes.)

-I'm so glad King George is releasing 22 More Hits next Tuesday, as a companion piece to 2004's 50 Number Ones. Some of his most classic songs, like "Amarillo By Morning," never hit the top, so this is much-needed and looks like it's got a fine-ass tracklisting. You know I'll probably write about it. (Some thoughts on 50 Number Ones are here.)

-Jay-Z's American Gangster may well be my #1 album of 2007. F'real. Full review coming soon.

-As much as I do like some of Duran Duran's full-lengths, the best way to experience them is via singles - they were an absolutely ace singles machine. And the best way to experience their singles isn't on the imperfect Greatest comp, but via their pair of boxed sets compiling every 45 in their catalog. There are 2 boxes: 1981-85, and 1986-95. Both are great, and kinda essential.

Reba McEntire - Reba Duets (MCA Nashville 2007)

When a superstar of Reba McEntire’s caliber releases her first-ever album of collaborations with other superstars, expectations are justifiably going to be high. The fact that this is only McEntire’s second new studio album of the decade – and that she hasn’t exactly been lighting the charts afire in recent years – is irrelevant. Not only is she a star of stage (starring in the Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun, as well as some much-lauded concert performances of South Pacific) and (small) screen (six seasons of her Reba sitcom), she’s had 22 #1 singles on Billboard’s country chart dating back to 1983. She came ohsoclose to her 24th with the first single from Reba Duets, as the Kelly Clarkson collab "Because of You" stopped at #2.

Kelly Clarkson, you ask? Yep, and Carole King, Don Henley (no stranger to the country world, to be fair - maybe you've heard of this band called the Eagles), and Justin frigging Timberlake, too. This isn't an all-over-the-place approach to an album of duets, however (cf. Elton John, Frank Sinatra): the remainder of Reba's vocal partners are pure A-list country stars, from Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts to Vince Gill and Trisha Yearwood. And damned near every one of 'em brings out the best in Reba, and vice-versa.

This album was shepherded very well, by which I chiefly mean song choices and production. The latter was done by Reba and Nashville giant Tony Brown (who just won another CMA Award this week, for producing George Strait's It Just Comes Natural), and I assume they had plenty to do with the former as well. Take the album's opener, "When You Love Someone Like That," sung with LeAnn Rimes. Reba gives one of her best vocal performances in years on this future-classic advice song (older woman advises younger woman, that is), and Rimes pushes herself to keep up, largely pulling it off. It's a hell of a way to kick of an album of this caliber, and there's no let-up.

McEntire and Ronnie Dunn (of Brooks & Dunn) co-wrote their duet, "Does the Wind Still Blow in Oklahoma?," and it's a gem. Both are OK natives, and this tale of leaving the prairie for the bright lights of the big city plays, as you might expect, to their strengths. "Because of You" follows; it makes no sense as a duet, but both Reba and Kelly sing it well (as Kelly should, considering it's her song to begin with), which turns out to be enough. The Rascal Flatts collab works surprisingly well - it's certainly better than a typical RF song - while the Chesney doesn't, one of the few letdowns here. The song isn't the problem, it's the pairing - I just don't buy McEntire and Chesney as a divorced couple. (Their voices don't match so well, either.)

Gill has sung with McEntire before, on their 1993 smash "The Heart Won't Lie," and they're clearly a matched set; both are superlative singers and play well with others. "These Broken Hearts," co-written by Gill, is accordingly superb, contemporary country with a timeless quality to it. Henley's never sung with Reba before, but he famously duetted with Yearwood on her "Walkaway Joe," and he's clearly learned how to meld his pipes with another's over the years (three words: "Leather and Lace"). "Break Each Other's Hearts Again," despite its awkward title, is pleasingly rich, perfect for two singers of their talents.

Not everything here works: in addition to the Chesney mismatch, Carole King's "Everyday People" (not a cover) is a bit too pop-rock to these ears for Reba's talents, and Timberlake's "The Only Promise That Remains" proves that J-Tim is generally better in the company of his buddy Timbo. It's not bad, but it's kinda dull (and oddly, the only track on Reba Duets that's not really a duet; Timberlake mostly just provides backing vocals). Those, however, are the exceptions. The rest of this album is good-to-generally-great; a few selections even approach the brilliance of Reba's classic '93 duet with Linda Davis, "Does He Love You." Call the duet album a gimmick if you need to, but in this case it's not only done its job of bringing Reba to the attention of the general pop public - it also succeeds as her finest work in a decade. A-

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Tim McGraw - Let It Go (Curb 2007)

Dammit, McGraw - with guys like Chesney and Paisley coasting, Toby artistically out to pasture, and young(er) guns like Josh Turner and Dierks Bentley revvin' their engines, we rely on a sure'n'steady guy like you to step your game up in 2007, especially after being reminded by parts of your last hits record that in plenty of ways your art's gettin' richer and richer with time (the saccharine "My Little Girl" allowed 'cause, well, you've got three of 'em at home). So what do ya do but kick off your newest album with one-two-count-'em-three straight duds, not just leadoff single "Last Dollar" (you haven't been this trite in nearly a decade, Tim) but the painfully literal "I'm Workin'" and the whole-lotta-nothing title track, "Let It Go." C'mon!
(Track four, "Whiskey and You," is not great shakes either.)

And them damned if you don't turn things around hard, hairpin-turn-like, starting with your cover of Eddie Rabbitt's great, underrated "Suspicions." This is one of the all-time finest songs about a lover's paranoia, and you give it an appropriately modest update - it's not quite a note-for-note, but it's close enough to not piss off the purists, at the same time with enough of your own flavor on the track to make it yours. (Your voice is rougher than Rabbitt's, but what's lost in cool clarity is gained in passionate grit.)

From that point on, Let It Go pretty much rules as it rolls through tracks 6-12, only faltering on the closing false-ringing "Shotgun Rider." The oughta-write-a-song "Kristofferson" works incredibly well, especially considering that you don't write any of your own material. (Like King George, you generally know how to pick 'em, Tim.) "Put Your Lovin' on Me" is a ragged-around-the-edges rough love song that "hot country" radio probably wouldn't know what to do with, but it's great. "Between the River and Me" is a hard revenge tale, very "down by the holler," very you, and all-around excellent, and the duet with wifey Faith, "I Need You," with its "like a needle needs a vein" refrain, hits hard to the heart; aside from the genius of "Like We Never Loved At All," it's the best collab the two of you've cut yet.

Tim, you haven't yet made a great album, but you continue to make better albums - and again, your art's growing in proverbial leaps. (Couldja rub some o' that off on the Missus, please? Even you can't honestly say you loved Fireflies, can you?) Let It Go is solid if not superb, and damn you can sing. I dobut you will, but just in case: don't ever quit, McGraw. We need stand-up studs like you in country music. B

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