This week's CD reviews include new releases from Michelle Williams, Five For Fighting, the Walkmen, El-P, and Mike Kindred.
Michelle Williams, “Do You Know”
Michelle Williams’ second solo album, “Do You Know,” won’t excite most gospel music fans.
Much of the album is so heavily laden with R&B and hip-hop influences that you could easily miss the underlying Christian themes. In fact, some of the album’s love songs don’t even specifically mention the object of her affection (God).
Sounding like a cross between Ashanti and TLC’s T-Boz, Williams can barely hold her own throughout the album. Her weak voice leaves her almost whining every note — the background vocals often sound better than Williams’ lead performance.
Beyonce Knowles and Kelly Rowland join Williams on the last track, “I Know,” which is by far the album’s best, because someone other than Williams sings the lead vocals.
Williams should really stick to what she’s good at — background singing — rather than expose her weak voice to jeers.—Damita Chambers
Five for Fighting, “Battle for Everything”
Five for Fighting, whose haunting song “Superman” soothed the collective soul after Sept. 11, is back with an album that cements the band’s storytelling ability.
“Battle for Everything” contains everything — lyrically and musically — that made the first album, “America Town,” a multiplatinum hit. The album’s first single, “100 Years,” is a graceful, haunting effort that chronicles the twists and turns that a man’s life takes from his teenage years to old age. Its sincerity is reminiscent of “Superman.”
It would be easy to dismiss “Battle for Everything” as more of the same, but that would be a mistake. Most of the 12 tracks feel connected, with one song leading into another. For example, “NYC Weather Report” takes the pulse of the city and “The Devil in the Wishing Well” takes the pulse of the human heart. It’s a refreshing effort when so many of today’s albums offer confusing mixes of commercialism and artistry.
But it’s singer John Ondrasik’s vocals on “If God Made You,” a story about loss and hope, and “Nobody,” which is punctuated by an ambitious composition, that are among the album’s real gems.
“Battle for Everything” erases any thought Five for Fighting would fade into the collective memory after Sept. 11.—Chelsea J. Carter
The Walkmen, “Bows and Arrows”
“When I used to go out I’d know everyone I saw/ Now I go out alone if I go out at all.” This couplet from the manic “The Rat,” from The Walkmen’s second album, “Bows and Arrows,” epitomizes exactly where the band is at. The album plays like a soundtrack to the love/hate relationship New Yorkers have with their city and one-ups their debut in both intensity and variance.
The quintet writes gritty, slightly skewed, self-produced anthems. The album features the convulsive fretwork of Paul Maroon, lush piano and the commanding voice of Hamilton Leithauser, who hovers above these smoke-filled walls of sound.
“Hang on Siobhan” is sung from the perspective of a boyfriend who can’t seem to get out of the bar to his girlfriend, who’s waiting angrily at home. The band plays their instruments like they’re about to pass out, barely tapping piano keys and a drum head, while Leithauser sings in a sincere slurry voice.
“Bows and Arrows” is littered with references to morning commutes, waiting on subway platforms and sleeping on floors, capturing perfectly the feeling of the initial excitement of the city wearing thin.—Jake O’Connell
El-P, “High Water”El-P’s latest album, “High Water,” is an exceptional jazz record, and an interesting turn coming from an indie hip-hop artist known for his dense lyrics wrapped in thunderous, anarchic beats.
The album is a major departure from El-P’s breakthrough solo record — 2002’s “Fantastic Damage.” Gone are the crafty political wordplays and chaotic walls of noise; and they’ve been replaced by soulful horns, sparse piano melodies and experimental beats.
El-P, aka El Producto, wrote the compositions and produced the album, but the playing of the musicians, from The Blue Series Continuum, is on point as well. The result is a style of jazz that can sound both like a jam session at a smoky club and the score to the denouement of a David Lynch film.
However, it’s still easy to see El-P’s background as a studio beat-maker, especially in the subtle electronic blips of “Something Is Wrong” and the driving beat that kicks in during “Intrigue in the House of India.”
The album’s best track — “When the Moon Was Blue” — is a haunting song that starts with an echoing vocal sample and bluesy piano melody, then mixes in a slow hip-hop beat and trumpet solo to build to a dense crescendo that definitely carries the artist’s signature.
Not that every song is a classic. Some tend to meander around for too long before finding their pace, and “Get Modal” throws in a vocal sample that just seems out of place.“High Water” won’t be what El-P fans expected, but it could be a pleasant surprise, and while there’s no doubt he could quit his day job to produce jazz records, here’s hoping for the sake of hip-hop that he doesn’t.—Angela Watercutter
Mike Kindred, “Handstand”Mike Kindred’s left hand is a marvelous musical instrument that creates a bluesy bedrock of thunderous swinging riffs. His right hand is special, too, exploring the upper registers of the piano with inventive zeal and refusing to be confined to a single genre.
Put them together and the result is “Handstand,” Kindred’s debut for Austin, Texas-based Loudhouse records. Included are 13 original tunes and one cover performed solo or with excellent drummer Dexter Walker, and despite the minimalist approach, the music rocks harder than your average band of twentysomething guitar slingers.
“Handstand” highlights include a funky New Orleans-style renditionof Elmore James’ “Can’t Stop Lovin’,” one of six songs featuring Kindred’s whiskey-marinated vocals.
Among the best of the instrumentals are “Bankable Boogie” and “Sleazy Boogie,” both aptly named, and the frenetic final cut, “Midnight Movie.”
A Dallas native, Kindred worked as a sideman for 30-plus years with artists such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Delbert McClinton.
Kindred is best known as the co-writer of “Cold Shot,” a blues hit that has paid his bills for the past 13 years, he jokes. He’s due for another hit, and “Handstand” deserves to be it.—Steven Wine