Wednesday, October 26, 2005

All That I Am

One would have to be unnecessarily churlish to begrudge Carlos Santana the massive success of his 1999 Supernatural set…the hit singles, the Grammys, the multi-platinum sales, all of it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy or a more talented musician. Bolstered by high-profile guest appearances (Eric Clapton, Lauryn Hill, Dave Matthews, and, of course, Rob Thomas), the disc seemed both like a “comeback” (though Santana never really went anywhere) and a well-deserved tribute.

When Santana went back to the well in 2002 with Shaman, the bloom was already off the rose with the guest-star thing…outside of turns by Michelle Branch (on the sunny hit “The Game of Love”) and Macy Gray (on the funky “Amore (Sexo)”), the only real highlights on the disc were the four cuts that just featured Santana and his band. For the most part though, Santana was relegated to the role of playing sideman to lesser talents (Dido, P.O.D., Musiq, Citizen Cope, etc.)

This new collection starts off promisingly with two potent cuts of classic funky Afro-Latin pop…”Hermes” and “El Fuego” (with the like-minded “Con Santana” and the jaunty closing “Da Tu Amor” coming later in the proceedings)…powered by sweetly soaring guitar riffs from Carlos and chanted Spanish vocals.

But then the parade of guest-stars begins anew.

The sprightly “I’m Feeling You” features another fine vocal by Michelle Branch and the ever-remarkable Mary J. Blige sings the choruses of “My Man” (which features nimble rapping by Big Boi of OutKast.) Sean Paul’s dancehall reggae…featuring vocals on the choruses by Joss Stone…on “Cry Baby Cry” melds with Santana fairly well.

Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler steps up to the plate with a tepid power ballad (“Just Feel Better”) that is only saved from MOR hell by Santana’s distinctive playing. American Idol runner-up Bo Bice (how the heck did he get in here? Oh yeah, he works for producer/record label president Clive Davis too) seems strangely out of his depth on the anonymous “Brown Skin Girl” (which compares, unfavorably, to Supernatural’s massive hit “Smooth”.) Anthony Hamilton’s turn on the R&B ballad “Twisted” is somewhat better (though a bit padded at 5+ minutes) but it still doesn’t really sound like a Santana cut.

“I Don’t Want to Lose Your Love”, featuring Santana tour-mates Los Lonely Boys, works well enough despite some hackneyed lyrics. The infectious salsa of the relentlessly positive “I Am Somebody”…featuring of the Black Eyed Peas…is fun largely because it meets Santana on common ground rather than trying to shoehorn him into another style. And the majestic “Trinity”…which features Santana joining forces with pedal steel guitar hero Robert Randolph and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett…is a soaring delight.

All That I Am is not a bad record (it's not great either...but at least it’s better than Shaman)…but I do hope that it’s the end of a "trilogy" and that the next Santana disc has far fewer guest stars and far more pure savory Santana goodness than this one does.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Entertainment Icons of the Century

Variety, the venerable magazine of the entertainment industry, is celebrating its 100th anniversary issue by naming the entertainment "Icons of the Century". There are 100 "icons" named but only the top 10 are ranked in order.

At the top of their list are The Beatles.

The rest of the top 10 are (in order): Louis Armstrong, Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Charlie Chaplin, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Mouse, and Elvis Presley. (A worthy cross section of cultural and entertainment icons to be sure.)

The other 90 (unranked) "icons" include names such as Madonna, Frank Sinatra, Oprah Winfrey, the Marx Brothers, Kurt Cobain, Bob Dylan, Cary Grant, Tupac Shakur, Lassie (the only animal in the group...I guess Flipper can't get no love from Variety :-), and Pac Man (who made the list even while my main rabbit Bugs Bunny did not.)

As always, these types of lists are highly subjective (of course) but still kind of fun in a discussion-starting sort of way (I might have put Bob Dylan and Superman in the top 10 instead of James Dean and Mickey Mouse, for example, but I realize that others will have other worthy candidates as well.)

Variety has presented their top 10 entertainment icons of the past 100 years...who would you have put in yours?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

A Time to Love

It’s been 10 years since Stevie Wonder dropped Conversation Peace, his last studio album. This new disc is therefore a very welcome release indeed (the album is available as a download...on Rhapsody, iTunes, etc.... now with the CD due out in stores on October 18th.)

A Time to Love is, as a matter of course, very upbeat and very tuneful…that is to say classic Stevie. Wonder does things his way…no songs featuring rappers, no samples…and we would expect no less from him.

The album leads off with “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved”, a soulful strut of a duet with gospel singer Kim Burrell, and as the title implies the rest of the 15 tracks all have to do with love (Stevie’s favorite subject.)

The first 10 tracks all deal with romantic love…including the lovely ballads “Moon Blue” (with a lovely piano solo harkening back to “Ribbon in the Sky”) and “Passionate Raindrops”, “From the Bottom of my Heart” (another sweet love ballad featuring some fine harmonica work by Wonder and a rousing chorus), the funky “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby” (a song about a remorseful cheating lover who’s trying to protect his loved one from finding out the true which features witty banter between two groups of background singers…one male and one female), and the slow burning groove of “Tell Your Heart I Love You”.

There’s a slight shift in tone with the inspirational “Shelter from the Rain”, a track that’s been dedicated to the Hurricane victims (with fees from its download going to charity.)

The thickest slab of funk comes here from “So What the Fuss?” featuring background vocal by En Vogue and some guitar work by Prince.

The album finishes with three classic Wonder appeals for peace love: the lilting “Can’t Imagine Love Without You”, followed by “Positivity”, the sprightly paean to looking at the glass as being half full, and closing with the stately title song, a duet with India Arie featuring Paul McCartney on guitars.

Is this a classic album? Probably not. But who cares? It’s soothing, satisfying, joyful musical journey by an artist who’s been delivering the goods for decades…old school soul that defiantly refuses not to sound like just some sad exercise in nostalgia. That’s good enough for me.