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A banner week for music lovers with some rock 'n' roll from Lenny Kravitz; '80s icons George Michael and Morrissey return with new offerings; Alanis Morissette has some more top-10 hits in the making with her latest; plus gems to discover from The Streets, Method Man and Julianna Hatfield.
Lenny Kravitz, “Baptism”Lenny Kravitz believes passionately in rock ’n’ roll. It’s only fitting that he depicts himself on his seventh album, “Baptism,” as a rock god incarnate.
Opening with “Minister of Rock ’n’ Roll,” an unleashed, melodic bellow about redemption, the newly coifed Kravitz — now sporting flowing straight locks instead of the Afro — screams over a fuzzy bass. “I’m a minister of rock ’n’ roll,” he shrieks. “I’ll make you freak, I’ll make you lose control.”
Bold and funky, the song sets the tone for an album of unbridled — and refreshingly new — retro rock (the album’s cover depicts Kravitz emerging from a pool of red liquid strapped with a Gibson Flying V guitar, a rock ’n’ roll relic).
The effacing “I Don’t Want To Be A Star” plays into the rock ’n’ roll legend of musicians who make it big before shirking fame and fortune. Though its lyrics are relatively shallow, the music is...well, it rocks.
And thankfully, the entire album doesn’t play into that Rolling Stone magazine cover cliche. Some songs on the album including “Flash” and “Sistermamalover,” which mix rock, rhythm and hip-shaking blues, may bring Kravitz closer to a signature sound.
Surprising on the album is the number of acoustic ballads. Melodically light and heady, the album’s title track “Baptized” features Kravitz singing about love and loneliness. And “Destiny” kicks the album with a spare and beautiful acoustic guitar melody.
Some have speculated that Kravitz is intent on cementing a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For the fans, “Baptism” seems more intent on giving them something to worship.—Ryan Lenz
Alanis Morissette, “So-Called Chaos”
“14 years, 30 minutes, 15 seconds I’ve held this grudge,” sings Alanis Morissette on her new disc, “So-Called Chaos.” “11 songs, four full journals, thoughts of punishment I’ve expended.”
Interesting approach. Instead of just writing about a romantic grudge, Morissette is writing about writing about a romantic grudge.
The surprise here is that she’s writing about finally letting go, of trying to forgive her tormentor and asking for forgiveness herself. Alanis is in love, dating an actor (get the feeling he’s a brave man?), and those warm feelings permeate this disc.
You pretty much know what you’re going to get from Morissette by now — a torrent of words, often psychobabble, that sound like journal entries. With her odd pronunciations (an-gray) and emphasis on unexpected syllables, they’re often hard to follow. And a song title like “Doth I Protest Too Much” is too easy a target.
What sets Morissette apart is her ability to write crackling melodies, putting those words in a strong pop-rock setting. “You Oughta Know” worked not only because of its sentiment, but because it was a great tune. For much of this disc, she and her band are at the top of their games.
“Everything” is the first single here, but “Eight Easy Steps,” “Knees of My Bees” and “Out is Thru” are just as hit-worthy.
She gets bogged down when the words overcome the music, as happens a few times in the second half of “So-Called Chaos.” But in keeping this to a relatively compact 10 songs, those weaknesses are minimized.—David Bauder
George Michael, “Patience”
Well I guess it would be nice if everything George Michael put out had the catchy rhythms of “Faith,” his first post-Wham! album, or the soulful introspection of “Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1.”
His latest release, “Patience,” seems to have been titled as a both warning and a request. This isn’t the dance-friendly Michael you know and love, the one whose famous posterior was immortalized in a “Saturday Night Live” skit: “Put my butt next to a dying flower and it will bloom!” This is, instead, a kinder, gentler Michael — and an increasingly irrelevant one.
(Believe me, it kills me to report this. I love George Michael and I loved Wham! The two-disc “Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael” remains in heavy rotation at my house — at least when my husband isn’t around.)
This new disc, for which Michael wrote or co-wrote all 12 songs, begins with a whimper: the title track consists of Michael accompanied by a simple, plaintive piano. His voice remains powerful, but the song itself isn’t as substantial as his earlier ballads, such as “Kissing a Fool” or “One More Try.”
The upbeat tracks on “Patience,” such as “Amazing” and “Cars and Trains,” sound like the breathy Euro-pop you’d hear while shopping for sweaters at Express. “Flawless (Go to the City)” and “Precious Box,” meanwhile, are generic gay-bar electronica.
The best song on the album, the sex-and-drug-soaked “Freeek!” at first sounds like an update of “I Want Your Sex,” which seemed so controversial back in 1987. But listen closely, and tucked inside the driving beat is a cautionary tale: “You got yourself some action, you got yourself a body...you got yourself addicted.”
At the end, in the acoustic “Through,” Michael laments: “Suddenly the audience is so cruel. Oh God, I’m sorry, I think I’m through.” It’s a sad resignation, but one that may be overdue.—Christy Lemire
Method Man “Tical 0: The Prequel”Listening to Method Man has always been a little bit like playing in a sandbox — dirty but fun.
More than many rappers, the man also known as Johnny Blaze has been able to write crafty rhymes, place them over club-ready beats and still maintain street cred for keeping it real, no matter how many commercials he does for deodorant.
The respect is a testament to the Wu-Tang Clan member’s wicked skills as an MC, which are put to good use on “Tical 0: The Prequel,” Method Man’s latest collection of witty rhyme-spitting and gritty hip-hop.
Although the album is full of good tracks, few go beyond the usual hip-hop playground of Bacardi, babes, cars and crime and even fewer reach the rawness of his delivery on Wu-Tang’s 1993 debut “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” or his 1994 solo debut “Tical.” But then, he was always the Clan clown.
But there are a lot of quality tracks here. “Act Right” is a rapid-fire rant on stepping up one’s game. “The Turn,” with fellow Wu-Tang member Raekwon, has a creeping, soulful loop and is one of the best tracks on the album. “Say What” with Missy Elliott and P. Diddy is sure to keep heads bobbing and “The Show,” with its sped-up hook, is a triumphant-sounding caper.
What’s most impressive is Method Man’s truly original rhyming, hardly any of which, unfortunately, is fit to print. But for a short taste, “I got drugs in my system, and thugs in the system that put slugs in victims” is just a sample line from “Say What,” spit in his signature gravely voice.—Angela Watercutter
Morrissey, “You Are The Quarry”
Watch your feelings America — Morrissey’s new album, “You Are The Quarry,” pulls no political punches when it comes to the good ol’ USA.
Morrissey thinks the United States, his current abode, is dandy. Still he croons lines like “the president is never black, female or gay, until that day, you’ve got nothing to say to me,” on “America Is Not The World.” Here, the Brit takes shots at American politics and commercialism, perhaps forgetting for a moment you can’t take a trip to the loo in London without tripping over a McDonald’s wrapper, and Tony Blair and Co. remain a coalition of the willing.
His trademark irony is oddly absent here.
But thankfully, his angst only lasts one track and then it’s back to the beautiful alt-rock tunes we know and love him for. The album gets better quick with top tunes like “Irish Blood, English Heart” and the best track, “Let Me Kiss You.” On the latter, it’s classic Morrissey to hear him lament “Close your eyes and think of someone you physically admire, and let me kiss you.”
Always self-deprecating, always poetic, the former frontman for The Smiths gives us substance and love songs and hasn’t lost a dollop of that luscious voice.
The backing band is excellent here as well, especially Dean Butterworths’ spot-on drumming. His style is never overpowering, yet never invisible and his work makes each song soar.—Ron Harris
Montgomery Gentry, “You Do Your Thing” For fans of country music, Montgomery Gentry’s take on southern rock connects the duo to a blue-collar aristocracy that includes such legends as The Outlaws and the Charlie Daniels Band. Their latest recording, “You Do Your Thing,” maintains that connection but also falls victim to some of country music’s cookie-cutter tendencies.
“You Do Your Thing” comes on strong from the downbeat, with all the hell raising and anthemic “put up or shut up” you’d expect from Montgomery Gentry, who claim both Lynyrd Skynyrd and Aerosmith as influences. Songs like “It’s All Good” and “If It’s the Last Thing I Do” might sound cliché, but you probably wouldn’t want to tell that to Troy Gentry, whose raging vocal on the latter track is a virtual invitation to a bar fight.
Production-wise, however, “You Do Your Thing” suffers from the digital sameness that afflicts a lot of Nashville’s recording projects. Unfortunately, this often makes the records strong performances sound like they were squeezed from a tube of digital cookie dough. Still, like a southern-fried Everly Brothers, Gentry and partner Eddie Montgomery’s distinctive tenors are soulful and dynamic, and it’s their combination that ultimately saves “You Do Your Thing.”—Paul Griffith
The Streets, “A Grand Don’t Come For Free”Birmingham, England’s The Streets’ second full-length album, “A Grand Don’t Come For Free,” is a concept album that plays like a hip-hopera. In the story, main character Mike Skinner loses a thousand pounds, falls in love, deals with shady mates and eventually comes to a revelation about his life and these relationships.
Skinner’s debut, “Original Pirate Material, shook up the American hip-hop scene a bit in 2002, with his British style actually sounding fresh. Raised on a steady dose of Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, Skinner raps leisurely to the point where he’s almost talking, fitting his bedroom recorded, arcade-game beats. Besides the White Stripes-like riff on the concise slice of Brit-hop “Fit But You Know It,” not much changes here as far as production.
What makes “A Grand ...” so compelling is Skinner’s ability to translate feelings associated with seemingly mundane experiences like leaving a DVD at home when you’ve returned to the store with an empty case, staying in with your girlfriend instead of going out with your boys, or needing to use your cell phone when the battery is dead. He also shows his vulnerability on the fragile “Dry Your Eyes” — the chorus of which was originally sung by Chris Martin of Coldplay.
The album concludes with the eight-minute, two-part “Empty Cans.” Half way through the song the track is rewound to the beginning and started over with the mood of the song dramatically changed. The mantra “something that was not meant to be is done/ and this is the start of what was” sums up the tale. For anyone who was looking for a hip-hop musical, The Streets is watching — out for you.—Jake O’Connell
Juliana Hatfield, “In Exile Deo”
A former member of the influential trio Blake Babies, Juliana Hatfield has made it her mission to breakaway from simple tag lines and characterizations.
Whiny yet intellectual girlie indie pop princess? That’s so 1994. Composed confessional songwriter? Definitely.
Hatfield is the perfect example of how alternative music stood poised to capture major market share, and why she never did is still a mystery to me and to her cult following.
Her seventh album, “In Exile Deo,” finds the Massachusetts native still writing deeply personal and striking songs that jangle with a pop din but simmer with more intellectual fare.
Across the 13 tracks and more than 50 minutes that comprise her latest LP, Hatfield has shed the wispy fan-friendly grrrl power that critics had initially embraced and then disregarded. Instead, she focuses on relationships, friendship and the emotional bonds that keep people — whether lovers or not — close at hand and in each other’s lives.
In “Tourist,” she sings about making one’s way through the ups and downs that life throws at someone. It’s a simple melody line, but her plaintive vocals propel it forward.
All in all, “In Exile Deo” finds Hatfield at a new stage in her career, one that most listeners ought to share in.—Matt Moore
John Lee Hooker, “Jack O’ Diamonds”
A key John Lee Hooker recording that’s never been released gets rightly enriched with “Jack O’ Diamonds,” a digitally remastered 1949 session that is a must have for blues fans.
Hooker’s signature fretboard-crawling style is readily evident on the album. The songs were recorded at the dining room table of Gene Deitch, then a Detroit cartoonist and lucky blues fan.
For Deitch, Hooker laid his soul and style bare, and his familiar tortured wailing is beautifully on display.
On “Trouble In Mind,” Hooker stomps his foot fiercely and moans, “Yes I’m going right down to the river, going to jump a boat a drown, don’t find a girl I’m loving, I won’t be back no more.”
His now-classic “Catfish Blues” rocks at a brisk pace. How Hooker bends his notes so forcefully, strums so steadily and picks out the twangy melody is equally baffling and entertaining. Then suddenly he breaks into a percussion of toe tapping and guitar slapping, working into a frenzy like a one-man blues band.
There are telling moments as well. We hear Hooker complaining his guitar is out of tune at the beginning of “Water Boy,” which sounds just fine once he’s locked in.
A handful of the 20 songs, such as “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel,” were learned at Hooker’s father’s church, according to the liner notes. And if there’s a Holy Ghost to be had, he’s working through Hooker’s hands.
The most amazing thing about “Jack O’ Diamonds” is that we can’t hear Gene Deitch cackling with glee in the background of his dining room. It must have been hard to contain his joy, so hats off to him for staying quiet while a music legend-to-be gave him a one-of-a-kind concert for the ages.—Ron Harris
Tonex, “Out The Box”How many artists can turn the “Family Feud” theme-song into a gospel “shout-fest,” and yodel, rap and scat on the same album? Twenty-something minister Tonex continues his music revolution with “Out The Box,” his third Verity label release.
Tonex’s live tracks are like Prince, Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Wyclef Jean and Missy Elliott rolled into one artist and baptized in the Holy Ghost. Tonex’s music is as much on the cutting edge of mainstream urban music as it is on the cutting edge of gospel. Most of the two-disc album’s tracks were recorded live, with enough tongues-talking, mini-sermons and screaming fans to remind you that Tonex is about ministry, not just singing. Yolanda Adams, Sheila E. and Kirk Franklin, make guest appearances.
Tonex offers a brief, crowd-pleasing run-through of earlier works like “Personal Jesus,” it’s too short to fully appreciate the power of each song. Tonex’s next flock-rocker is sure to be the moving “Make Me Over.” Its cascading chorus powers a plea for restoration, a topic that always brings out the best of Tonex.
The biggest drawback to “Out The Box” is there aren’t enough bare-bones tracks showcasing Tonex’s voice, the album’s most powerful instrument.—Aimee Maude Sims