This week we look at Kylie Minogue's new pop-laced release, Norah Jones's sophomore album and the latest from the Indigo Girls, plus other new albums.
“Body Language,” Kylie MinogueThe cover of Kylie Minogue’s “Body Language” sums up the album before the listener hits the play button. Clad in a bare-all half-shirt, skintight spandex and pursing her lips into a lustful pout, she’s about one thing: s-e-x.
More notable than the album’s content, though, is the Australian dance floor diva’s departure from the pulsating club beats of her last U.S. release in favor of a sound that’s more booty-shakin’ than glow stick wavin’.
However, few of the tracks are innovative, and much of the album sounds like American pop. It isn’t until “Cruise Control” — a feel-good bonus track at the end about sex (what else?) — that Minogue might have a single.
Songs such as “Obsession,” “Chocolate” and “Promises” come across more like a teen pop queen just turned 20 and discovering the wonders of her own sexuality than a 35-year-old woman already acquainted with it.
Even in “Red Blooded Woman,” Minogue sounds like she is single-handedly tackling the content of a Christina/Britney duet.
The album isn’t a complete miss, but don’t read too much into Minogue’s own body language. At least on this album, she has a tendency to be a tease.— Ryan Lenz
“Feels Like Home,” Norah JonesHere’s a record to pacify a pop culture audience fretting that the Super Bowl halftime show reflects a hopeless trend toward trash. Norah Jones’ much-anticipated second release, “Feels Like Home,” is tasteful, tranquil, temperate and sure to sell millions.
Alas, it’s also a tad dull. Teaming again with her touring band and producer Arif Mardin, Jones delivers an album that sounds like a mere reprise of her 2002 debut, the multiple Grammy-winning “Come Away With Me.” The arrangements remain sparse, the tempos slow, the vocals whispery.
That’s not all bad. Jones’ warm, distinctive singing ensures a long, successful career, and her less-is-more approach offers a refreshing alternative to the noisy junk dominating the charts.
But the songs on “Feels Like Home,” most written by Jones and her bandmates, are less substantial than the material on her debut. Best are “Carnival Town,” with a ticktock rhythm that sets it apart from the sleepier ballads, and the closing “Don’t Miss You at All,” a lovely Jones concert staple based on Duke Ellington’s “Melancholia.”
Prosaic coffeehouse lyrics reference the sun, moon and blue sea — and that’s just in the first three songs. They contribute to a mood so wistful and laid-back that the up-tempo “Creepin’ In,” a duet with Dolly Parton, becomes a jarring contrast. Another guest, the Band’s Garth Hudson, plays accordion on one cut but is buried in the mix.
“Feels Like Home” lacks flair. Even Jones’ piano playing is restrained on an album all about texture. It’s pleasant enough, but she can do better and undoubtedly will.— Steven Wine
“College Dropout,” Kanye West
There have been few hip-hop debuts as mature and polished as producer-rapper Kanye West’s “College Dropout.”
As a lyricist, he has the courage to reach beyond mainstream rap’s dominant themes — besides women and partying, West discusses religion, social change and the importance of family. As a beat-maker, he finds ways to continually reinvent his much-copied trademark production style (looping sped-up old soul samples).
But it is West’s focus on melody that sets “Dropout” apart. On songs such as “Jesus Walks” and “Family Business,” he rips down the barrier separating gospel and popular R&B from hip-hop, instead building his own style from scratch by rapping over a combination of samples, choirs and other subtle background vocals.
The result is incredibly catchy, accessible and melodic hip-hop, delivered by an artist whose acknowledged arrogance is matched by the talent of his guest list, including fellow Chicagoan Common and Talib Kweli on the excellent, straightforward “Get em High.” Twista and Jamie Foxx star on a slightly revamped version of the radio hit “Slow Jamz.” Also appearing are Mos Def, Ludacris and Jay-Z, who seems to abandon retirement plans on “Never Let Me Down” by rapping: “Number one albums, what I got like four of them? More of them on the way.”
West himself lacks the vocal presence of his guests and sometimes stumbles over awkward rhymes, but makes up for it with expansive subject matter and a stylized, singsong delivery that he carefully matches to the beats, especially on the dancy “The New Workout Plan” and hit true-life car-crash survivor tale “Through the Wire.”
Skits mar the album. Though several poking fun at the economics of higher learning are hilarious, they disrupt the continuity and show the dark side of West’s arrogance.
However, the 26-year-old delivers musical talent and a sense of maturity that mainstream hip-hop has lacked recently, and this outstanding debut must not be missed.— Ryan Pearson
“All That We Let In,” Indigo Girls
The simple art of the Indigo Girls’ music becomes clear on a breakdown right after the chorus of the song “Something Real.” A slight piano trickle comes in, the Indigo Girls start singing a soft melody of “Ooohs” and you realize that with this duo, it’s all about harmony.
Equal parts love and politics, folk and rock ’n’ roll, Amy Ray’s smoky Southern drawl and Emily Salier’s soft everywoman voice create beautiful balances on the Indigo Girls’ ninth studio album, “All That We Let In.”
From the singsong optimism of “Perfect World” to the somber piano-and-vocal reminiscence of “Cordova,” there isn’t a bad track on the album. The duo manage to capture a distinct sound with each song. “Heartache for Everyone” has a fun, ska rhythm and “Free in You” is a sweet, soft (and, yes, harmonic) love song.
But one of the best tracks is “Dairy Queen,” with its plucking acoustic rhythm and a melody that sticks in your head like peanut butter to the roof of your mouth. And when Ray sings, “The love you gave was not for free, but the price was truly fair. I’ve never felt so glad to be so well-spent, so beyond repair,” it’s enough to make a person want to get dumped just to sing along in earnest.
“All That We Let In” is classic Indigo Girls — it’s like an old friend you’re always happy to hear from.— Angela Watercutter
“The Red Thread,” Lucy Kaplansky
The red thread, in Chinese legend, is the tie that binds us together — to our friends, our families, all the important people in our lives. It’s an appropriate title for Lucy Kaplansky’s latest — and finest — album, which explores those themes through six original songs and four well-chosen covers.
Kaplansky’s voice seems to get warmer and richer with each album, and the lyrics she writes with her husband, Rick Litvin, do the same. The title song on “The Red Thread” is a masterful meditation on familial love through the generations, inspired by their adoption of a daughter from China: “And I remember when you told me if you run out of time, How happy you were just to know she’ll be mine, And when I wrap her up warm you’ll be right next to me, ’Cause the red thread that ties me to you ties her to me.”
Throughout, Ben Wittman’s production creates a near-perfect backdrop for Kaplansky’s voice, with the incomparable Duke Levine leading an ace band.
The cover songs represent a who’s-who of the finest contemporary singer-songwriters: Bill Morrissey, James McMurtry, Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, and the late Dave Carter. “The Red Thread” proves that Kaplansky and Litvin can stand in their company.— Eric Fidler
“Havana Dreams,” Sonia SantanaSpanish singer Sonia Santana makes her U.S. debut with this tribute to Cuban music of the 1940s and 1950s, when the Caribbean island produced legendary greats like Perez Prado and his high-energy, brass-driven orchestra that catapulted Latin music onto the American scene.
“Havana Dreams” features the era’s most beloved classics from “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” to “Lagrimas Negras” in a clean, crisp style.
But Santana’s polished, well-trained voice offers a tamer version, diluting the raw energy that charged the original songs.
The album’s best track is “Amapola.” Her sultry voice matches the intensity of the blaring horns of The Saratoga Band, a group of Cuban musicians hand-picked and led by Latin jazz veteran Tony Perez.
Santana’s attempts to add a contemporary twist to the big-band songs by sprinkling in English works in some cases, but in others takes away from the music’s soul.
While the album evokes images of the sizzling nights of the island’s “Golden Age,” it may be too subdued for hard-core Cuban music lovers.— Julie Watson
“Dancing in the Dark,” Tierney Sutton
Tierney Sutton has acquired a devoted following within jazz circles as a cool, classy singer with a refined melodic sense, crystal-clear intonation and flawless pitch. Her fifth CD, inspired by the music of Frank Sinatra, should help this underrated singer break through to a wider audience.
On “Dancing in the Dark,” Sutton explores the darker and gentler side of Sinatra’s music, drawing on his ballad recordings from the 1950s and 1960s. She doesn’t try to imitate Sinatra: her tinkling, dreamlike interpretation of “Fly Me to the Moon” stands in sharp contrast to his bold, brassy version with the Count Basie Orchestra on the album “Sinatra at the Sands.”
Sutton’s phrasing is superb as she softly caresses and stretches the lyrics on familiar tunes such as “What’ll I Do” and “All the Way.” Although there is little of the high-speed scatting found on her earlier albums, she does engage in some light scat singing on the more up-tempo “Where or When.” Sutton has also wisely included some overlooked treasures from the Sinatra songbook such as “I Think of You,” based on a Rachmaninoff melody, and “Emily.”
Sutton also benefits from the seamless interaction with her trio of 10 years who have appeared on all of her CDs: bassist Trey Henry, drummer Ray Brinker and pianist Christian Jacob, who orchestrated and conducted the string orchestra that enriches the texture on five of the 12 tracks. This intimate CD sets just the right mood for Valentine’s Day.— Charles J. Gans
“Die Fledermaus,” opera in three acts by Johann Strauss Jr.
Hermann Prey, Kiri Te Kanawa, Doris Soffel, Orchestra of The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Placido Domingo, conductor (Kultur)
Christoph Homberger, Mireille Delunsch, David Moss, Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Marc Minkowski, conductor (ArtHaus Musik)
Two radically different presentations of the waltz-filled operetta “Die Fledermaus” have just been released on DVD.
Placido Domingo conducts a classic version of the story, in which a Viennese gentleman visits a costume party and flirts with a “countess,” only to find out later that she’s his wife. This production, taped on New Year’s Eve 1984, even has Domingo lending a few notes of “Aida” from the pit.
Hermann Prey and Kiri Te Kanawa are elegant as Eisenstein and Roselinda, and the party sequence includes a guest appearance by Charles Aznavour. The production by Leopold Lindtberg and Richard Gregson, with sets by Julia Trevelyan Oman, is traditional and tasteful. While the previously released DVD of the 1990 Covent Garden version, which was Dame Joan Sutherland’s farewell to the house, has Luciano Pavarotti and Marilyn Horne among the party guests, and Carlos Kleiber’s version on Deutsche Grammophon can’t be topped for the music, Te Kanawa and Prey bring a certain winning charm.
Hans Neuenfels’ production, recorded at the 2001 Salzburg Festival, was designed to offend — even the audience boos are preserved on the recording. Orlofsky is a drug dealer who dishes out cocaine to his guests and screams in a falsetto, Nazi thugs appear on stage and Eisenstein has incestuous children who commit suicide. There also are interjections of rap music. This was the farewell production of Gerard Mortier’s tenure as head of the Salzburg Festival, and he wanted to go out in a memorable way. This will be long talked-about in the annals of over-the-top opera stagings that serve to destroy a piece rather than assist it.— Ronald Blum