Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Back to Basics

Christina Aguilera never met a one-syllable word that she couldn’t stretch to five or six unnecessary syllables and she’s never come across a musical space she couldn’t fill with wailing, soaring, nearly-operatic vocal runs and fills (whether the space needed them or not)…but, all that said, I have to give proper credit to the lady for this record. The best of this two-disc collection is a sparkling pop confection that solidifies her position as one of the most talented vocalists of her generation of pop singers (and this coming from someone is who not really a fan of most of her previous offerings.)

And this indeed a pop record…some of the early rumors about Back to Basics suggested that it was going to be some of kind of honest-to-Billie jazz, torch song, or classic R&B album and there are touches of all those (and shout outs to folks like John Coltrane, Etta James, Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, and others) on the first disc (produced by D.J. Premier) and more than touches on the second disc (produced by Linda Perry) …but this is, despite any affectations to the contrary, a pop record from start to finish (and that’s all to the good.)

Despite the self-conscious (and quite unconvincing) boasts of the track “Still Dirrty” (and the clumsy come-ons of “Naughty Nasty Boy” on the second disc…about which more later), Ms. Aguilera has toned down the sex kitten act and embraced a more adult perspective in her music on the first disc of Back to Basics with defiant self-affirmations like the quietly funky “Here to Stay”, sweet, gentle paeans like the lilting “Oh Mother”, and playful struts like the smokin’ hot tribute to her husband “Ain’t No Other Man”.

When Aguilera puts her powerful pipes to the gospel soul of “Makes Me Wanna Pray” (featuring some righteous keyboard work by Steve Winwood), you want to be in the choir that backs her up and sing “Hallelujah!”

(Okay, she could have left off the ego-stroking “Thank You” which is filled with snippets of fawning “Christina, you’re so wonderful and inspirational” messages from fans…but I guess I can give her a pass on that.)

If the first disc is filled with hip hop flavored beats and tasty pop, the second disc is more jazz and blues flavored and it’s just a little bit problematic for that.

“Candyman”, is a blatant, though admittedly still sassy, rewrite of the Andrews Sisters’ classic “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” but it is still a lot of swinging fun just the same.

There are more stumbles on the second disc than on the first…the salacious, brassy ballad “Nasty Naughty Boy”, for example, is much more embarrassing (for Xtina and, especially, for listeners) than it is sexy (which she was apparently going for.)

“I Got Trouble” is a stab at singing honky-tonk blues that doesn’t work because Aguilera, for all of her talent, just doesn’t have the credible blues chops to pull it off.

“Hurt”, on the other hand, is a big, string-laden pop-rock ballad that is elevated above its clichéd lyrics by her powerful and multi-faceted vocals (expect to hear this on pop radio a lot in the very near future.) The gospel confession of “Mercy on Me” soars so powerfully that you want her to have the forgiveness she pleads for in the song.

The acoustic (accompanied by a guitar and an unobtrusive string section) “Save Me from Myself” features some of Christina’s most subdued, and effective, vocals ever.

The strings are brought to the fore on “The Right Man”, the melodramatic tribute to her husband and her wedding that brings the disc to a close on an unfortunately overblown and sappy (if probably very heartfelt) note.

There are very few two-disc CD sets that wouldn’t have been more punchy and powerful if edited down to one disc…and Back to Basics is certainly no exception to that rule…but overall I have to give Ms. Aguilera (and her producers) kudos for putting together a double-disc collection with many more highlights than disappointments.

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