Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Adele 21 2011

Let me be the last person on earth to review Adele's 21.

Here goes.

It's good. It's better than the first one by quite a bit.

There are too many slow, heartfelt big pop ballads. You might say just a little too Streisand, or Journey. But they are pretty good big pop ballads.

I guess, for me, Rolling In The Deep, Rumour Has It, and Someone Like You needed at least two more equals to make this a classic. The soulful He Won't Go comes close.

As it is, it's good. There's clearly a lot of people who feel more strongly than do I, since 22 million units have been sold. That's actually purchased. Think about the decent living a guy in a punk band could make if their fans actually purchased a copy of their CD.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Kelly Willis 1990-2007

Kelly Willis has had an imperfect career, but she is none the less gifted with a very nearly perfect country singing voice. Her earlier records on MCA, Well Travelled Love 1990, Bang Bang 1991, and Kelly Willis 1993, were all good efforts, and had some fine songs. But nothing sold terribly well. This era was reprised recently (2011) on One More Time. There's a CD worth your time for sure.
After an EP for A&M she began an independent relationship with Rykodisc, and has made three stellar records. 1999's What I Deserve is just remarkable at every turn. Willis' twang is at once vulnerable and steeled for a fight. She writes half the songs, and uses particularly skilled partners, including Chuck Prophit, whose skills as writer, producer, and guitarist served Willis well on this as well as the next two. Take Me Down, What I Deserve, Not Forgotten You, Wrapped- all of them, and generally the whole record, is perfect writing around lovely (and smart) lyrics, sung by a terrific voice with seriously deep soul, and backed by a half Nashville, half LA band with country chops and pop smarts.

Easy 2002 repeated the formula to near perfection again. If I Left You, with it's great lyrical turn, Easy (As Falling Apart), and Kirsti MacColl's Don"t Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim! are all top notch. But so is Not What I Had In Mind, with the remorse of the morning after with the ex, made as explicit as only a great country song can.

If you're like me, and you've been blown away by the last two, you almost have to give the next one a shot. Translated From Love 2007 continues the thrill. Great songs, great singing, great band. Hooks, teardrops, and mostly straight country backing. This isn't that big Nashville Product you're used to. It's closer to k.d. lang than to Faith Hill, closer to early Trisha Yearwood than to Dixie Chicks.

Listening to these CDs again, I am stunned by the consistency of the performances. Plus Willis has an amazing voice. Not just a good one, a truly unique talent. When you put it together with killer songs and perfect (not over-stated) production, and you can keep it up for three whole records (or five, since Bang Bang and Kelly Willis come darn close!), you should be rich and very famous.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Eric Hutchinson Moving Up Living Down 2012

Eric Hutchinson has made it back. His 2008 breakthrough Sounds Like This was the perfect summer record and a great pop record. How could he possibly NOT hit the sophomore slump after that classic? I waited for this release with the mix of anticipation and anxiety that question evokes.

I'm happy to report that Mr. Hutchinson does not disappoint. He not only avoids the slump, he comes darn close to topping Sounds Like This. He stays with some of the things he does well: hooky choruses, interesting arrangements, good lyrics and vocals, the occasional Stevie Wonder reference, and a clear understanding of the history and deep meaning of the hit pop record.

He manages to branch out a little without losing any of his identity. Living In The Afterlife plays harder than before, Best Days' sunshine and The Basement's cool night are ready to go for summer. He throws in some Reggae-lite on Not There Yet and Talk Is Cheap. What the new songs lack in familiar-sounding catchy hooks they make up for with new-sounding catchy hooks. Still derivative, the references seem slightly less obvious on this one.

Hutchinson writes great songs, with immediate sing-a-long choruses, and adult lyrics. He's got a fine high tenor, a little bit of Philadelphia funk, and smart arrangements. All recorded fairly well for a modern pop record. If this pop music is too slight for you, you might be taking yourself too seriously. Time to once again turn the car stereo up very loud and hang out the window screaming and dancing down some Michigan back road... 

It turns out he's the real deal.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Hang Ups Second Story 1999

In 1999 this little pop-rock band from Minneapolis made one of the finest power-pop records ever. What does that sound like? Put The Raspberries, Big Star, Badfinger (especially Badfinger), Todd Rundgren and Marshall Crenshaw (and, by association, The Beatles) in a blender and blend on high.
Brian Tighe wrote a batch of great songs, and some lovely ones. The band is just right all the time. Don Dixon produces one of his best sounding CDs. Everything works.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Melody Gardot The Absence 2012

I was looking forward to this release because I liked her first two so very much. Then as the release date approached, I heard it was her Latin-influenced record, and I got nervous. I like some Latin music, but usually only when performed by Latin artists. I've been disappointed by American or European artists attempts at incorporating Latin styles. Then the record arrived.

The album is produced by Heitor Pereira, a Brazilian-born guitar player and composer for film scores. He also plays guitar throughout, and even gets a duet vocal. There are Brazilian, Cuban, African, and Caribbean sounds incorporated in most, but not all, of the songs. She sings in English, Portuguese, French and maybe some Spanish. And yet it is still a Melody Gardot recording in every way, including all the best ways. And I think the reason for that is songwriting. Gardot wrote all of the songs on this record (three have co-writers), and the quality of her songwriting has certainly not diminished.

Mira kicks things off on an upbeat note. Amelia follows, it's guitar- and drum-driven sound is as smooth as an old Scotch in a small Brazilian bar. The soft kiss-off of So Long (Don't wait up for me, darling, 'cause I'm not coming home), and the slow tango of So We Meet Again My Heartache, with it's vaguely familiar melody and lovely string arrangement, both feature great lyrics and singing. Lisboa ends the first side, and is just a little too languid for its own good.

Impossible Love has a fabulous gypsy-sounding orchestration that features the bandoneon (the classic tango "accordion", actually closer in size and sound to the concertina). The cabaret style jazz-pop of her first two records surfaces on If I Tell You I Love You, which also has a fine lyric. Goodbye is a Brazil via New Orleans march, with a sultry-snarly vocal and great clarinet solo. Se Voce Me Ama is the vocal duet with Pereira, and while it is slow, the guitars and vocals are very pretty. The lush arrangement given to My Heart Won't Have It Any Other Way is delightful. Sinatra would have done this song for sure if she'd written it in 1955. The closing Iemanja is a quick-paced African/Caribbean piece with a rollicking chorus.

It's grown on me as I've listened to it more times. If there's a gripe, it's that there's a lot of slow songs, but that claim can be made for her previous work as well. And there are some luminous, albeit slow, performances on most of them. If you haven't heard 2009's My One And Only Thrill, you really should. Larry Klein did a great job with that record. So this one gets 1/2 star less, and that may just be a matter of taste. If you're fan of Norah Jones, or much closer, Madeleine Peyroux, you should know about Melody Gardot by now. If not, you're welcome.