This week another ’N Sync boy tries to grow up, George Harrison's new boxset makes the case that he was the underappreciated Beatle, the Minus Five find themselves influenced by the Jam, Jonatha Brook refuses to be categorized, Paul Kelly makes a darn good album, and much more.
JC Chasez, “Schizophrenic”
“Schizophrenic,” the solo debut from ’N Sync’s JC Chasez, seeks to establish the singer as someone other than just the second-cutest guy from ’N Sync. Like his bandmate Justin Timberlake — who produced a critically acclaimed, multiplatinum solo effort with “Justified” — Chasez wants to be taken seriously as an artist (he co-wrote all but one of the disc’s 16 songs).
Of course, it’s a difficult task for a former Mouseketeer whose claim to fame is the bubble-gum pop that ’N Sync produced. And Chasez doesn’t help his case on “Schizophrenic” with major missteps. He tries so hard to shed his clean-cut image with over-the-top, repeated sexual references in his lyrics that it’s almost laughable, making him sound like a horny teenager rather than a sexually confident adult.
And unlike Timberlake, who mainly ripped off Michael Jackson for his solo debut, Chasez borrows too heavily from too many sources, from Jackson to Prince to George Michael and even Donna Summer, leaving him without a sound of his own.
At its core, there is engaging material to be found in “Schizophrenic,” but it takes a determined listener to stay with it long enough to find it.
—Nekesa Mumbi Moody
George Harrison, “The Dark Horse Years, 1976-1992”
Ever the quiet one, George Harrison didn’t make many solo albums. But when he did, they were usually worth checking out.
“The Dark Horse Years, 1976-1992” provides a long overdue opportunity to review a significant portion of Harrison’s post-Beatles career.
Harrison endorsed the digital remastering of the six albums he made for the Dark Horse label over 17 years. Many of the releases have long been unavailable on compact disc.
Taken as a whole the discs help make the argument that Harrison was underrated as a solo performer.
While he never reaches the heights of his first solo effort, 1970’s “All Things Must Pass,” there are songs on these releases that can stand among the best of any solo Beatles effort.
Chief among those is “All Those Years Ago” from 1981’s “Somewhere in England.” An homage to John Lennon, who was murdered the prior year, the song includes backing by Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney.
The box set also comes with a DVD that includes promotional videos and other archival footage. While there are six bonus tracks total, they do little to enhance the original releases and are more of an afterthought.
The Minus Five, “In Rock”
The Minus Five head number Scott McCaughey has pop prowess for miles and miles, masterminding “In Rock,” a collection of melodic snarling that’s a fresh take on pop rock.
“In Rock” is a combination of eight remastered songs recorded by the group in 2000 and four new tunes done last year.
McCaughey, a veteran of ’80s Seattle group Young Fresh Fellows, leads a band of notables here including R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and industrial rock journeyman William Rieflin. Guests include singer/songwriter John Wesley Harding and Kurt Bloch of the Fastbacks.
The group mix together some styles from bygone eras in an original way, making an energetic type of pop rock. “Dear My Inspiration” matches a slithering ’60s electric organ and crunching guitars with McCaughey’s melodic and mocking vocals. “The Forgotten Fridays” echoes the agitated crooning of ’70s pop punks The Jam in its frenetic chorus.
The Minus Five know when enough’s enough, never allowing these songs to drag on too long. The album’s 12 tracks average three minutes each — the magic pop number.
“In Rock” shows a group at the top of their game, making music with plenty of tune and teeth.
Jonatha Brooke, “Back in the Circus”
Jonatha Brooke’s music can’t be contained in one category, as her latest release, “Back in the Circus,” proves. In her three solo albums since leaving folk duo the Story, Brooke has moved from folk rock to engaging acoustic to pop perfection with ease. This time, there’s a little bit of everything.
The title track’s a bit of a waltzy tune in which Brooke rediscovers herself, while techno beats set off the song “Less Than Love Is Nothing” before it veers off into a ballad. In many of the songs, Brooke once again reflects on relationships and love lost, but she’s not as bitter about it as she once was; as a result, there is a more subdued mood.
Brooke takes a brave step setting these new songs next to the well-known “Fire and Rain” from James Taylor, the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and the Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky.” She gives each her own flair but falls flat with “Fire and Rain,” adding little to Taylor’s well-crafted classic.
However, Brooke scores with a sweet, almost-acoustic version of “God Only Knows.”
Young Gunz, “Tough Luv”
The first album from the Young Gunz is a bland collection of hip-hop that will elicit yawns from even the most rabid Roc-A-Fella fans.
Rapping about girls, parties and street life over programmed drum tracks, Chris and Neef are so boring on “Tough Luv” that it’s difficult to believe they are labelmates with Kanye West, whose imaginative debut was released earlier in February.
The Young Gunz can’t muster the substance or vocal presence needed to distinguish themselves as anything more than inexperienced rappers with a strong guest list. Jay-Z, Beanie Sigel and Cam’Ron all drop in to add uninspired verses that nonetheless overshadow every lyrical effort from the Young Gunz.
Timeworn samples are the only bright spots: Run-D.M.C.’s “Peter Piper” makes “Friday Night” acceptable; singer Rell’s version of a Luther Vandross hook gives the single “No Better Love” some life; and “$$$ Girlz” includes a catchy chorus from “Rich Girl,” made famous by Hall & Oates.
At least the Young Gunz know where they stand. In what seems to be a prescient (if inaptly named) first song, one member of the duo rhymes on “Future of the Roc” that if they mess up the album, their first shot at stardom, “fans won’t give us a second.”
Paul Kelly, “Ways & Means”
Australian Paul Kelly has been making fine records for a couple of decades, so it’s no surprise he sounds like a sage on his latest release. “To be good takes a long time,” he sings, “to be bad no time at all.”
“Ways & Means” is darn good. Most of the 21 tunes on the generous two-disc set are love songs — happy ones, which Kelly claims are harder to write. But he makes the task seem effortless as he examines amorous relationships with sly humor, chiming guitars, sweet melodies and plentiful hooks.
Sometimes Kelly rocks out. Always he finds a groove as he sings about flirtation, adoration, devotion, courtship, lust, sin and virtue. Kelly’s expressions of love generate more steam than any adolescent rapper’s hormone-fueled rant.
The second disc is more laid-back and the arrangements mostly acoustic, but the music just as engaging as on disc one. Serving as bookends are charming surf tunes that open and close the album, the shimmering guitars reminiscent of the theme song from some old movie. A romance, most likely.
Robin and Linda Williams, “Deeper Waters”
Robin and Linda Williams move to Red House Records for “Deeper Waters,” their seventeenth recording, and the change has done them good.
This 12-track disc features 11 originals that play to the strength of their vocals. As always they are centered lyrically on country life — its charms (“Home No. 235,” “Old Plank Road”) and bitter fruit (“Leaving This Land”).
The album has a warm and modern feel without sounding overproduced — rock-ribbed in places, as comfortable as well-worn jeans elsewhere. The close harmony is spiced with guest vocals from Mary Chapin Carpenter, Iris DeMent and Sissy Spacek, among others.
For a couple celebrating 30-plus years together, the Williamses are very much in midstride.
Peter, Paul and Mary, “Carry It On”
There’s more to Peter, Paul and Mary than “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” — and the box set “Carry It On” proves it.
Not that there are many revelations or surprises in the four discs. Peter, Paul and Mary know what works and have pretty much stuck to the same formula over their 40-plus year career.
There’s something to be said for that longevity and dedication. They have never diverged from their political activism, as more recent songs about apartheid and the homeless prove.
But their best and most memorable work remains that from the 1960s and early 1970s, which is covered well on the first two discs.
“If I Had a Hammer,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “500 Miles” are just some of the songs that defined not only the Peter, Paul and Mary sound, but to many, also the folk music revival.
While five hours of Peter, Paul and Mary music may be a bit much for the more casual fan, there are enough quality tunes to engage listeners of any age.
Darol Anger and the American Fiddle Ensemble, “Republic of Strings”
Afro-Brazilian-Scandinavian bluegrass might be one way to explain the sound of “Republic of Strings.” Another would be to just say it’s sublime, and makes categories irrelevant.
Darol Anger has been obliterating musical borders for years, but never to better effect than on his latest release. Anger has worked with the David Grisman Quintet, the Turtle Island String Quartet and other eclectic outfits. He is joined in the American Fiddle Ensemble by Scott Nygaard on guitar, teenage wonder Brittany Haas on fiddle and Rushad Eggleston on cello.
Whether the starting point is Bill Monroe or Stevie Wonder, the American Fiddle Ensemble creates rich, lusciously textured, complex and quite beautiful music.
“Republic of Strings” is one of the most exciting albums in a long time.