Section By Jeb D.
John Legend and The Roots
A depressingly brilliant idea: cover a bunch of soul classics from the 60’s and 70’s, with selection keyed towards demonstrating that things are just as fucked today as they were then. I’ve always been pretty indifferent to Legend as a singer, but The Roots are as sharp a musical outfit as any working today, and most of this works pretty damned well, particularly since such obvious touchstones as Marvin Gaye or Diana Ross are skipped over in favor of songs like Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy” and Les McCann’s “Compared To What.” The only real misstep is actually on the title song. Legend’s not crazy enough to try to go throat-to-throat with Teddy Pendergrass-he actually shares the vocal chores with Melanie Fiona and Common-but the magnificent spaciousness of the original recording did a lot to get you past the pretty uninspired lyrics, which lie a bit too exposed here. But that’s really just a minor bump in the road of an album that is well worth your time and coin.
HANDS ALL OVER
It used to take guys like Toto or ELO years of gigging and many months’ worth of studio time to smooth all the interesting edges off their music, and craft their sound into something so easy to digest that it would bypass the Program Director and head straight for the Top 40; these guys are only three albums in, and they’re already expert at it. The bass pops and thumps, the harmonies are sharpened to an inch of their lives, strings and guitars are creamy smooth, and they’ve auto-tuned the shit out of this fucker. You can dance to “Don’t Know Much About That,” and wave your lighter to “Stutter.” And lest they overlook any key demographics, Lady Antebellum guests on the weepy “Out of Goodbyes.” I don’t want to be unfair, here: shaping your sound to mass public taste isn’t exactly a new game, and it’s not as though these guys appear to have anything in the way of a muse to betray; they’re pretty good at givin’ the people what they want. Listen to any one of these tracks on the radio, and your ears won’t bleed. But play the whole thing at once, and your soul just might.
Not so much taking a break from TV On The Radio as pushing its envelope slightly. Thankfully, David Sitek isn’t yet a “superstar” producer, so the parade of guest singers avoids the obvious: instead of the latest pop diva (whoever that might be this week) or lite-jazz sensation, we get a few people whose work I’ve loved (Karen O and TVOTR bandmate Kyp Malone), and some voices that are delightfully new to me (Holly Miranda, Yukimi Nagano). The album effectively mixes deep dance grooves (“Absence of Light,” “Tiger”), haunting romance (“Communion,” “The Lesson”) , and plain pop fun (“If You Return,” “Young Love”), and the collaboration with David Byrne, “Apartment Wrestling,” is everything you’d dream a Talking Heads reunion could be.
GUITAR HEAVEN: THE GREATEST GUITAR CLASSICS OF ALL TIME
Carlos invites you over for an evening of Guitar Hero. From the on-the-nose title to the cheesy K-Tel cover graphics, this is pretty much a case of an album being just what it says on the tin. The veteran axe idol takes on a dozen rock classics known for great guitar solos/riffs (“Smoke On The Water,” “Bang A Gong,” etc.) with guest stars including Scott Weiland, Chris Daughtry, Nas, and Joe Cocker, and goes nuts. It’s full of choices, both in songs and arrangements, that range from inspired to downright loony (on “Riders On The Storm,” Ray Manzarek dumps the song’s signature electric piano, and instead sits in the background, playing the organ part to “When The Music’s Over”). The track that stands most clearly apart is “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” with India.Arie on piano and vocals, and classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma (allegedly) sawing away almost inaudibly in the background. The gentle samba-like treatment is interesting, but where we could buy a line like “I look at the floor / and see it needs sweeping” from a Maharishi-addled acidhead, in Arie’s crooning delivery, it does sound unusually daft. Elsewhere, Santana never plays one note where five or six will do, there’s wah-wah all over the damn place, and some of the guest contributions are fun (Nas manages to make “Back in Black” even sillier and more over-the-top than the original). There is the occasional misstep– it would be hard to imagine a combination of singer or arrangement that is less suited to the delicate “Little Wing” than the overblown treatment that Carlos and Cocker give it– but it’s not about the songs, it’s about overdosing on Santana’s axemanship, and if that’s what you seek, it delivers in spades.
Other Noteworthy 9/21 Releases
Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give. Expertly-played country-rock, that in a world devoid of T-Bone Burnett, the Drive-By Truckers, Steve Earle, the Bottle Rockets, or Dave Alvin, might have bit more to recommend it.
Michael Franti & Spearhead, The Sound of Sunshine. Bay Area rabble-rouser goes pop, resulting in smooth grooves for sensible young adults.
Black Country Communion, Black Country Communion. The obvious comparison is Them Crooked Vultures (retro metal band with Zep connection). For what it’s worth, though, these guys seem to have spent as much time on hooks as riffs, and there’s a reason that Glenn Hughes was the fill-in guy for both Purple and Sabbath: he’s got Daltry-like control as well as power. Bonamassa shreds and slashes, Bonham thuds and slams, and lead single “One Last Soul” is one catchy sumbitch.
Thievery Corporation, It Takes a Thief. Garza and Hilton assemble an ace “Best Of” collection, which will bring a glow of nostalgia to lovers of ads for Lexus and Jaguar everywhere.
Wingless Angels – Volume I & II. Keith Richards’ second collaboration with the Rastafarian spiritual group. Impossibly soulful and soothing
Jane Monheit, Home. I don’t begrudge a personable young woman making a career of expertly singing jazz standards for adoring audiences. But in a world where virtually every great recording that any of these songs has ever had is at your digital fingertips, I’m not sure there’s much need to buy her albums, too.