Sam Phillips, “A Boot and a Shoe”
The world is a little out of balance in Sam Phillips songs, a place where the spiritual and the carnal do battle, your entire life can fall through a hole in your pocket and help tends to arrive a day late.
Phillips has long been one of the most intriguing singer-songwriters going. Her first releases after leaving the world of Christian rock were almost baroque, acid-pop affairs featuring layers and layers of instrumentation and production. But since joining Nonesuch with “Fan Dance” in 2001, Phillips has replaced sonic storm with subtlety and restraint.
“A Boot and a Shoe” picks up where “Fan Dance” left off, with Phillips and producer-husband T Bone Burnett showing an economy of style that puts the focus on her warm, unaffected vocals and the melodies. Its a stripped-down sound that offers no apologies and leaves little room for artifice.
Still, Phillips and Burnett load these 13 short tunes with sophisticated instrumental quirks and multiple percussion, providing a perfect backdrop for her intelligent lyrics and straightforward singing. In a just world, radio would play music this smart and Phillips would be a star.—Eric Fidler
D12, “D-12 World”
Eminem’s talented crew faces a three-part identity crisis on “D-12 World.” The five rappers struggle to carve out their own sound in the booming Midwestern hip-hop scene, distinguish their individual personalities and, hardest of all, emerge from the long shadow of “the lead singer of the band.”
They cleverly confront the final challenge in the playful, gimmicky “My Band,” but Eminem’s dominance is apparent from the CD’s first verse. His minute-plus fusillade on “Git Up” is a study in voice control and vitriol that no other D12 member can match.
Bizarre doesn’t even try, but his twisted humor and abrupt stop-and-go flow make him the most interesting and easily identifiable of the crew. The other four — Proof, Swift, Kuniva and producer-rapper Kon Artis — are skilled enough but their voices blend a bit too easily, a significant flaw in such a large group.
It’s nevertheless a guilty pleasure to hear them trade politically incorrect punchlines on tumbling free-for-alls like “6 in the Morning” and “40 Oz.”
The crew, which seems energized by beats from Kanye West, Dr. Dre and Hi-Tek, also seriously examines “Loyalty” and the ups and downs of friendship (on “How Come” and “Good Die Young”).
The album is largely produced by Eminem, and his synthesized Detroit bounce has matured in recent years, making “D-12 World” feel less slapped-together than the group’s 2001 debut, “Devil’s Night.”
A limited number of “D-12 World” CDs include a DVD featuring two videos and a follow-the-group-around-with-a-camera documentary that is overly long, but helps flesh out the personalities behind the music.—Ryan Pearson
Loretta Lynn, “Van Lear Rose”
Loretta Lynn would probably still be waiting out her days, tending to her home, were it not for the White Stripes’ Jack White.
White lovingly produces “Van Lear Rose,” the comeback disc from the country music legend. He brings a backup band that can swing on a back porch and rock with conviction. It sounds exhilarating, enlivening these songs as much as a sterile studio would deaden them.
Yet the coal miner’s daughter is hardly being propped up. Her voice more than stands up to time and her persona — the backwoods Kentucky gal who will fight tenaciously to keep the trailer trash away from her husband — remains intact.
The title cut is a gentle tribute to her father’s courtship of her mother, and it segues directly into “Portland, Oregon,” a rocking duet with White about the wonders of a sloe gin fizz. The haunting “Women’s Prison” and tribute to her late husband, “Miss Being Mrs.,” are other highlights. About the only serious misstep is the self-conscious spoken-word song, “Little Red Shoes.”
Kudos to Lynn and White for delivering the goods. Yet a nagging feeling is unavoidable at the end of this disc: How many other underappreciated music legends are languishing because a hot young star hasn’t taken a personal interest in them?—David Bauder
Diana Krall, “The Girl in the Other Room”
Jazz fans worried that crossover pop success might spoil Diana Krall can rest easy. On “The Girl in the Other Room,” the singer-pianist takes her first big leap into songwriting without the safety net of performing the Great American Songbook standards that made her a Grammy-winning and platinum-selling star.
Krall benefits from her new partnership with Elvis Costello, whom she recently married. He helped her overcome her fear of lyric writing by turning her random thoughts into poetry on the CD’s six original tunes. The remainder of the 12 tracks cover tunes by contemporary songwriters: Mose Allison’s bluesy “Stop This World,” Tom Waits’ earthy, seductive “Temptation,” Joni Mitchell’s soaring “Black Crow” and Costello’s yearning ballad “Almost Blue.”
Krall’s last studio album, 2001’s “The Look of Love,” featured lush orchestral arrangements but less of her piano playing. She returns to her jazz roots here in an intimate quartet setting. Krall stretches out on piano on the hard-driving “Love Me Like a Man,” popularized by Bonnie Raitt; she closes the song with a Count Basie-style flourish.
This is Krall’s most personal album, reflecting her emotional roller-coaster of two years ago when she despaired over the loss of her mother to cancer and the deaths of two mentors, singer Rosemary Clooney and bassist Ray Brown. But she found new hope in Costello, and themes of healing and resiliency emerge in such original tunes as the gospel-like “Narrow Daylight” or the bittersweet “Departure Bay,” where her mother’s death stirs up childhood memories.
The mournful ballad “Abandoned Masquerade” alludes to Krall feeling the need to express herself through her own words and music rather than hiding her tears behind the romantic songs of the Gershwins or Cole Porter. Indeed, the only older tune on the CD, “I’m Pulling Through,” a more obscure Billie Holiday number, could easily describe her feelings toward Costello: “When I thought that hope was gone ... you taught me how to carry on / Thanks for the lift in time and thanks for your song.”
This thoughtful, exquisite CD demands a listener’s attention rather than merely serving as velvety background music. It reveals a whole new dimension to Krall’s artistry.—Charles J. Gans