Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Katharine McPhee

Like Taylor Hicks, Katharine McPhee left the songs from her post-American Idol single (the sweetly soaring “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the insipid “My Destiny”) off her debut CD. It was probably a wise move as neither of those tunes would have really fit into the overall vibe of this CD.

Katharine McPhee finds our Ms. Kat (yeah, she…along with Chris Daughtry…got the lion’s share of the handful of AI votes I chose to make last year) applying her rich, supple, compelling voice to a set of catchy R&B flavored pop songs (such as the feisty “Love Song”, the lilting, mid-tempo “Each Other”, and the wry first single “Over It”), dance floor ready jams (the softly-propulsive “Not Ur Girl” and the almost-funky “Do What You Do”), and yearning ballads (the aching “Home” and “Ordinary World”, either of which would have easily garnered a standing ovation from an American Idol audience, and the soulful “Better Off Alone”.) She doesn’t really challenge herself…either with her song choices or her vocals…but she seems extremely comfortable in the groove she sets for herself and she comes across as relaxed and focused throughout the record.

The songs on this disc are firmly in the vein of music made by female pop stars like Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, and Beyonce (you can easily imagine any of those ladies performing these same songs without changing the somewhat generic beats, lyrics, and arrangements one little bit) but, that said, McPhee acquits herself admirably (managing, for the most part, to rein in the vocal histrionics that the aforementioned singers often succumb to and to let the richness and sweet earnestness of her voice bring the songs home.)

There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here but this is an assured, entertaining debut CD that heralds the coming of another comely, talented platinum-selling pop star…and hey, that’s all good by me.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Black Halo

This record came out in 2005 but I only found out about it this week...more’s the pity for me. I was introduced to it through the tender auspices of MySpace. Yeah, I know I’m a little outside of the demographic target of MySpace but it is, I’ve found, a wonderful way to discover interesting new music and enormously talented musicians who haven’t broken through yet.

Case in point…this grand little set from the enormously talented Ms. V.K. Lynne. At turns tender and tough…bluesy and rocking…soothing and invigorating…Black Halo is a solid set of 10 fine, fine songs (all written by Lynne) that clocks in at just over 30 concise minutes without a clunker in the bunch.

Lynne’s voice is strong, sassy, soaring, sweet, and extremely soulful…there are hints of Melissa Etheridge here and there (the driving rock of the acerbic “Her End of the Phone”, for example) but Lynne is no copycat. She is just as compelling on the rocking title song as she is on the shimmering ballad “Other Side of my World” or the spare, wistfully-haunting “My Bones”.

With her band adding tight, tasteful, tuneful support, Lynne’s music soars and enthralls and draws you in for repeated listenings. It's a keeper.

Black Halo is available from my pals at CD Baby. You can sample clips from the disc there.

FYI: My MySpace is here

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Oscar Nominations

So Oscar loved Dreamgirls…sorta. The musical snagged 8 nominations which is impressive enough…it is the most for any nominee this year…but 3 of those are all in the same category (Best Original Song for “Listen”, “Love You I Do”, and “Patience”) which will probably split the vote enough to allow Randy Newman (nominated for “Our Town” from Cars) or Melissa Etheridge (getting the nod for “I Need to Wake Up” from An Inconvenient Truth) to take that award.

Dreamgirls did pick up expected Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress nominations for Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson respectively.

Dreamgirls failed to join the group of Best Picture nominees which, instead, features Golden Globe winner Babel (which picked 7 nominations including two Best Supporting Actress nods) along with The Departed, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine (which also picked up Supporting Actor and Actress nods for wily vet Alan Arkin and young Abigail Breslin), and The Queen.

Four of the Best Director nominees come from those movies: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel), Stephen Frears (The Queen), perennial Oscar hopeful Martin Scorsese (The Departed…a 6th loss would put Marty in a dubious category all his own), and Clint Eastwood (Letters from Iwo Jima…and the guy who denied Scorsese the last time they were both in this category: Eastwood taking the statuette with Million Dollar Baby while Scorsese and The Aviator went un-rewarded.) Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris were snubbed in this category in favor of United 93’s Paul Greengrass.

The oft-nominated (this is number 14 with 2 previous wins) Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada) is among the Best Actress nominees along with Penelope Cruz (Volver), Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal), Kate Winslett (Little Children), and odds-on favorite Helen Mirren (The Queen).

Front-runner Forrest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) leads a Best Actor field that includes Leonardo DiCaprio (Blood Diamond), veteran Peter O’Toole (Venus…his 8th nomination without a win thus far…another dubious record that might lead the often-sentimental Academy to make him a surprise “upset” winner), Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness), and semi-surprise nominee Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson).

Cultural phenomenon Borat had to settle for a Best Adapted Screenplay nod.

In a year when there seemingly dozens of animated movies the category still only features 3 nominees: Cars, Happy Feet, and Monster House.

The Academy Awards will be handed out on February 25th in a ceremony hosted by Ellen Degeneres.

Friday, January 19, 2007

American Idol '07 (Week 1)

The American Idol ratings juggernaut roared back to the airwaves with a seemingly endless stream of bad auditions and a lot of carping about how mean the judges are being this season (see here, for example.)

I don’t get all of the complaining. This is the 6th edition of the show so we have to assume that most of the people auditioning for the show know what they’re getting into…if they’re particularly delusional about their talents the producers will put them through for the “entertainment” value and the judges (see above) will skewer them for the same reason (why else would the judges, the producers, and the editors let some of the most egregious performances go on and on to the point of utter embarrassment?)

I have to believe that a fair percentage of the people know that they don’t have a shot at getting into the finals but are desperate to be on TV anyway they can (others, of course, truly believe themselves to be blessed with vocal abilities they do not actually possess outside of their feverish, achingly hopeful imaginations and/or the lovingly uncritical opinions of their friends and families.)

Are the judges more impatient and snarky this season? Yeah…they’ve been to this rodeo a few times now and finding themselves presented with far more potential William Hungs than potential Kelly Clarksons is, for the most part, no longer that amusing to them (and I'm right there with them.)

(Speaking of judges, Jewel was remarkably cogent and supportive during the Minneapolis tryouts…she seemed more real and relaxed there than she does during her stint as co-host of the current season of Nashville Star.)

Is the talent level of potential Idols really that shaky this season? Apparently so…they only culled 17 Hollywood-bound candidates out of 10,000+ folks who gathered in Minneapolis and only 14 from the 9,000+ hopefuls who stood in Seattle’s schizophrenic weather for their chance at stardom.

Hey, it’s Idol…people may be complaining but many, many more people are watching (the number of people who watched the first two episodes are almost double the number watching what has been watching the average episode of Desperate Housewives, this season’s ratings leader up to now) but it is what it is and come this Spring someone will handed the crown and instant egress to the pop charts and all of this criticism about meanness will be long forgotten.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Armed and Famous

Reality show creators and producers (and TV network execs desperate for a hit) are geniuses. Think about it...did you think the world needed a show about Z-list celebrities (70's TV heartthrob Erik Estrada, one of the wackier [and that's saying something] members of the Jackson clan LaToya Jackson, Jackass' Jason "Wee Man" Acuna, Ozzy's chip off the addled block Jack Osborne, and former wrestler Trish Stratus) training to become "real cops" in Muncie, Indiana?

Yeah, me neither. The fact that Armed and Famous exists just goes to show what we know (thanks, CBS, for showing us the error of our ways...)

Monday, January 08, 2007

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of '07 is a diverse group to say the least. The honorees...who will formally inducted during ceremonies on March 12 in New York City...are indie pop standard bearers R.E.M., rockers Van Halen (David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar are both included...but, for some strange reason, Gary Cherone is not :-), legendary rock poet Patti Smith, 60's girl group The Ronettes, and rap/hip hop pioneers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 (the first rap group to enter the Rock Hall.)

With the acrimonious relations between the members of Van Halen (Michael Anthony having recently parted ways with the band and been replaced by Eddie Van Halen's song Wolfgang...not to mention the off and on relationship between Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth), one wonders if they can bury the hatchet long enough to appear (and perform) during the ceremonies.

Relations between some members of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 have apparently been chilly for a while as well.

Hopefully at least all four original members of R.E.M. (who do not have an acrimonious relationship following drummer Bill Berry's departure from the band) will be there to play together.

(And we can only hope and pray for a duet between Patti Smith and Ronnie Spector...well, I think that would be very cool anyway :-)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The 2006 Twenty (Part Two)

The Twenty are my favorite reasons to have owned a CD player in 2006. They are listed in alphabetical order by artist and the links (where applicable) lead to the original reviews posted on this blog over the course of the year. (The first half of The Twenty is in the post just below this one.)

Madeleine Peyroux – Half the Perfect World

A lovely, jazzy, utterly engaging CD filled with beguiling vocals and arrangements on a mix of carefully chosen covers and grand original songs.

The Pipettes – We Are the Pipettes

Bouncy, cheeky, and undeniable groovy, this upbeat party both celebrates and updates the girl group sound (from the Supremes to the Ronettes to Banarama) for the 21st Century with tight harmonies and sassy, unselfconscious lyrics.

Cat Power – The Greatest

Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) teams up with some crack Memphis session men to craft a sultry, atmospheric, melancholic jewel of a record that lives up to its seemingly-grandiose title.

Regina Spektor – Begin to Hope

Quirky, provocative, and compelling…Ms. Spektor approaches with piano riffs, rhythms, vocals, lyrics, and influences at odd, but never less than intriguing and imaginative, angles and makes it all work. The special edition features 5 bonus songs that are well worth the added cost.

Bruce Springsteen – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (American Land Edition)

An enormously entertaining disc that will set your toes to tappin' and your soul to hummin'…or as Bruce himself says in the liner notes, “turn it up, put on your dancin’ and singin’ shoes, and have fun”. The “American Land” version adds 5 bonus tracks…including the potent title track and the evocative “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live”…to the mix with enriching effect.

Julieta Venegas – Limon y Sal

A delightful collection of energetic, irresistable pop songs…it totally enthralls even listeners who (like me) don’t speak Spanish.

Tom Waits: Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards

A 3-disc collection of new songs, covers (including two Ramones songs and a tune from a Disney movie), oddities, and outtakes shouldn’t hang together as an evocative, coherent collection but this offering puts the lie to that. This is as astonishing in its breadth as it is in its soulful, raucous, bittersweet musical glory.

Cassandra WilsonThunderbird

A genre-defying gem that is one of those CDs that grabs you on the first listen and then continues to reward the listener with each and every subsequent listen.

Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Silly title aside, this is, quite simply, a wondrous pop record (one hour and seventeen minutes well spent indeed.)

Neil Young – Living with War

A passionate, heartfelt, angry, hopeful, defiant record and that remains true whether you agree with Young’s politics or not.

Monday, January 01, 2007

The 2006 Twenty (Part One)

The Twenty are my favorite reasons to have owned a CD player in 2006. They are listed in alphabetical order by artist and the links (where applicable) lead to the original reviews posted on this blog over the course of the year.

Anjani – Blue Alert

This is a luminous collaboration with master songwriter (and CD producer) Leonard Cohen. Anjani was given access to some unfinished Cohen poems, journals, and lyrics and she completed them with Cohen’s aid and consent and the results are lovely, ethereal, and moving.

India Arie – Testimony, Volume 1: Love and Relationship

Songs of faith and empowerment…songs of self-awareness and hope for humankind…songs that could be insufferably cloying were it not for the sweetly earnest outlook that colors each of them… a sweet, uplifting, entertaining journey indeed.

The Beatles – Love

An interesting, and often successful, experiment…it doesn’t supplant or blaspheme the original classics (which are still out there to be enjoyed in all of their undeniable original glory)…it’s just a bit of heartfelt fun that is at once wonderfully familiar and, at the same time, a fine new experience with the Fab Four.

Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

An utterly gorgeous collection of 12 melodic, poetic songs that are neither country nor pop but rather an intoxicating blend of the two (with the stellar musicianship defying any facile pop sheen to take hold.)

The Dixie Chicks – Taking the Long Way

An assured, defiant, melodic return to form after the mixed results of their last studio disc (2000’s Home)…as much pop as country and it’s all the better for that.

Bob Dylan – Modern Times

A laidback…but never dull…record that Dylan produced (using the pseudonym of Jack Frost) using only his crack touring band as his support musicians (a grand idea…the players all compliment each other beautifully) and it feels lived-in and familiar (in a very good way) from the very first listen.

Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris – All the Roadrunning

An enchanting collaboration between two amazing artists, the always angelic voice of Emmylou and the distinctive guitar and voice of Knopfler blending to very amazing effect. (The live follow-up CD/DVD set…Real Live Roadrunning…which features some of the songs from here along with selections from their individual albums, is also more than worthwhile.)

Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins – Rabbit Fur Coat

Rilo Kiley’s front-woman steps out with a beautifully realized collection of country-flavored tunes aided and abetted by the shimmering harmonies of the Watson sisters.

Gnarls Barkley – St. Elsewhere

Insanely catchy, enormously inventive, and uncompromisingly entertaining…this hip hop/pop/r&b music at its finest.

Sam Moore – Overnight Sensational

A fine, fun album showcasing the still potent pipes of a true soul survivor with able support from a great supporting cast of friends and fans (including Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, and Fantasia.)