Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Coming Back to You

American Idol has reached the round of 36…a four-week elimination derby, the contestants separated in groups of 12 for three weeks with the fourth week being a wildcard round, with 3 finalists graduating into the final 12 each week. The first dozen didn’t exactly acquit themselves with honor (the next American Idol might be in that group…but at first blush it doesn’t seem likely) and we’re not going to dwell on it.

Instead we’re going to dwell on one of the better CDs to come from a former AI contestant, the long-awaited (by me anyway) collection by the enormously talented Melinda Doolittle (the third place finisher two editions ago.)

Coming Back to You isn’t perfect…the first few tracks have arrangements that seem to be trying to overwhelm Doolittle’s voice (though ends up she holds her own with aplomb)…but it’s pretty damn fine once it gets going…if for no other reason as to show that the “retro soul” thing isn’t solely the province of young British singers these days :-)

The opening “Fundamental Things” is a bit fussy but things pick up a bit with “It’s Your Love”, a rather generic love song given more life than it probably deserves by Melinda’s impassioned voice (the same is true for “Declaration of Love” and the mid-tempo title track which , again, is too fussy with needless horns…Doolittle is a real singer and the producer should have trusted that more rather than piling on unnecessary embellishment like she was some marginally talented pop tart who needed some cover for her lack of vocal chops.)

But things do get interesting. First on a sublime vocal on “The Best of Everything”, the first of 3 Sammy Kahn songs on the album, where Melinda’s soulful voice dominates the arrangement to grand effect. Another Kahn song, “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” is the albums big ballad swimming in strings and muted horns that ably support…rather than try to overwhelm…Doolittle’s luminous vocals.

“Wonderful” is another relatively generic song but, again, the vocal elevates it to a cool, engaging level as it does on the inspirational “I Will Be” and the soaring gospel of “We Will Find a Way”.

And then the righteous Ms. Doolittle tears into a thick slice of blues with her potent reading of Robert Johnson’s feisty and bawdy “Dust My Broom” and makes she makes you want to testify as does so. And later she lets us know that this wasn’t a fluke by dipping into Johnson’s venerated songbook for a funky take on “Walkin’ Blues”.

There is such passion in “If I’m Not in Love” that it sizzles through the speakers…and Melinda conveys that passion without the need to over-sing…as on the rest of the disc, she gives herself over to the song and lets her amazing voice do its thing with style and with a refreshing lack of melodrama (which makes the big note at the end of this track all the more thrilling.)

And at the end it’s just Melinda (sweet and nuanced) and a keyboard (still a bit too high in the mix but only a bit distracting) on the 3rd Sammy Kahn tune, the lovely “Wonder Why”…a charming and effective wrap up.

Coming Back to You is one of the better efforts from an American Idol alum…and it’s an engaging collection in its own right…it’s all good :-)

Monday, February 09, 2009

Random Notes: The 2009 Grammy Awards

Okay, the awards don’t really matter much…who remembers them two days later?...with the Grammys the show’s the thing. I only watch two awards shows a year…the Grammys and the Oscars…and so I’m always hopeful they’ll be worth the 3+ hour investment of time they usually require of me.

Thumbs up: U2 (you usually can’t go wrong with Bono and the boys kicking off your show), Al Green and Justin Timberlake (a last minute sub for Chris Brown who was having legal problems to do with domestic assault) with Boyz 2 Men and Keith Urban, Jennifer Hudson (the performance was stirring), Stevie Wonder and the Jonas Brothers (the kids were a bit hyperactive…but hey they’re kids…and the combination was a bit weird but, strangely enough, it worked), Radiohead and the USC Marching Band (very cool), Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (the big winners in a year when the Grammy show was jam packed with hip hop), Kanye West and Estelle, Sugarland and Adele (the Best New Artist winner), Timberlake and T.I. (my favorite hip hop performance of the night), Paul McCartney with Dave Grohl (a wonderful time was had by all…though of all of the Beatles songs he could have picked, it was a bit strange that Sir Paul decided to use the one that starts with the line “…well she was just 17 if you know what I mean…” :-), Carrie Underwood, Kid Rock, and Kenny Chesney (who knew he was pals with Morgan Freeman?)

The tribute to the Four Tops…with Smokey Robinson, Jamie Foxx, Ne-Yo, and the last surviving Top Duke Fakir…was very sweet (though Foxx seemed to flummox the director by going one way while the other three guys went the other way.)

The tribute to New Orleans was fine but it could have been better if Lil’ Wayne could have shut up (after finishing his part with Robin Thicke) while Allen Toussaint and Terence Blanchard were playing.

The Bo Diddley tribute…with B.B. King, John Mayer, Buddy Guy, and Keith Urban…was also fine (though you might have hoped that a tribute to Bo would have been a bit more animated…)

There was something oddly cool about both Green Day and Blink-182 coming out to present awards.

Special props to M.I.A. for enthusiastically singing the hooks for the “Rap Pack”…Kanye West, Jay-Z, T.I., and Lil’ Wayne…even while it looked like her water could break at any moment. The song itself…”Swagga Like Us”…was lively enough but, as these rap collaborations too often tend to go, it ended up with the four rappers seemingly trying to out-shout each other.

The appeal of Coldplay continues to elude me (please spare me your barbs, Coldplay fans…which are, of course, legion…your mileage may vary…so just let it go), Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus have had better nights (ibid.), Whitney Houston seemed a bit…spaced out (but hopefully she is still on an upward trajectory), and Neil Diamond was…well…Neil Diamond (and I guess somebody has to be so there’s that…and hey Jay-Z really liked it…)

And I’m completely over “I Kissed a Girl” and Katy Perry should be too if she doesn’t want to end up a one-hit wonder/novelty act.

All in all, not a bad show…too long, of course (they cut off Stevie Wonder’s closing song) but most of the winners kept their acceptance remarks short (well until the end when Robert Plant seemed like he was going to go on for a while) and things kept moving a fairly good clip most of the night. Like I said, it was not a bad show.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Working on a Dream

As anyone who has read this blog for a length of time knows, I am totally in the bag for Bruce Springsteen. I’ve been down with “the Boss” since ’77 when Darkness on the Edge of Town came out (the “future of rock and roll” hype for Born to Run a couple of years earlier put my iconoclastic hackles up and I resisted its charms at first…ah, the foolishness of youth…)

This is not to say that all Springsteen records are created equally. There are some…Darkness, The River, Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, Live /1975-85, The Rising, We Shall Overcome…that I return to over and over finding enormous satisfaction each time; while there are others…Human Touch, The Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils and Dust…that do not draw me nearly as often (though they have their own rewards just the same.)

At first blush it seems that Working on a Dream will most like fall into the first group.

It starts with the epic tale of “Outlaw Pete” (an 8 minute story song about a cowboy maverick) and ends with the Golden Globe winning theme from “The Wrestler” (a spare, rueful elegy that somehow managed not to get an Oscar nomination) and in-between there’s vibrant, optimistic vibe that was largely missing from the last couple of CDs Springsteen and the E Street Band did together.

Songs of love and passion and redemption are the currency of this engaging record. Some of the songs…the nakedly romantic “What Love Can Do”, the optimistic “This Life”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, and the infectious title track…have a sprightly bounce that will sound great booming through car stereos on bright blue summer days.

Even the bluesy rock and roll snarl of “Good Eye” hugs you like an old friend and holds on tight.

“Kingdom of Days” is a delightfully soaring number…I watch the sun as it rises and sets/I watch the moon trace its arc with no regrets…that makes as good a theme statement for the CD as any other song on it.

The playing is, of course, tight…even if Clarence Clemons’ iconic saxophone only makes a few fleeting appearances…the songs are charming and heartfelt, and Bruce is in fine voice throughout.

Yeah, I am in the bag for Bruce…and it’s records like Working on a Dream that makes me very happy to be there.