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New Jackson songs wow critics Thriller from beyond grave

LOS ANGELES, May 13, (Agencies): Self-styled King of Pop Michael Jackson returns from the grave again this week with a second posthumous album of songs recorded before his death in 2009. “Xscape” goes on sale in the United States Tuesday, after being released in various European countries at the weekend and on Monday. Critics have already hailed “Xscape” a clear improvement on 2010’s “Michael,” the first album released after Jackson died of a drug overdose at age 50, as part of a multi-record deal with label giant Sony. “From the first, there was the voice .....Nearly five years after his death, that voice remains, and is at its most powerful on the new album,” wrote the LA Times’ reviewer. The new album “feels shockingly vital, as though the producers charged with re-imagining this work had harnessed dance floor defibrillators,” he wrote.

Ironically, the new album’s songs include one about child sex abuse, the issue which helped bring down the self-styled King of Pop, despite being acquitted of sexual molestation charges in 2005. The singer’s executors have worked hard to pay off the enormous debts left by the fallen star, with key projects including the “This is It” film of rehearsals for the doomed world tour he was planning before he died in 2009. “Michael” has sold a relatively modest 540,000 copies, according to Billboard magazine, which noted that Jackson’s overall record sales were less than both Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash last year.

Comprises
“Xscape” comprises eight songs chosen from the vast catalogue which Jackson worked on over four decades but which did not make it into any of his iconic albums like 1982’s “Thriller” or 1987’s “Bad.” The songs are based on original vocals by Jackson, who often made multiple recordings of tunes he was working on, but with music “contemporized” by producers for a modern audience. While fans will have to wait until next week to hear all the songs, the titles have been released. They include “Xscape,” first produced 15 years ago, and “Do You Know Where Your Children Are.” The song is about “kids being raised in a broken family where the father comes home drunk and the mother is out prostituting and the kids run away from home and they become the victims,” according to the liner notes.

US rapper Timbaland, the executive producer on “Xscape,” said they were keenly aware of the need for the new Jackson record to stand up against the best that current pop music has to offer. “How would I hear this on the radio against Katy Perry? Would it sound old, would it sound new?” asked the producer, who works closely with Justin Timberlake and Beyonce. He “had to make sure that it can compete with everything that is going on today in the pop world,” Timbaland told Billboard.

Dolly Parton, at age 68, creates her best album in more than a dozen years by returning to the bluegrass-flavored sound that worked so well for her at the turn of the century. “Blue Smoke” succeeds partly because the Country Music Hall of Fame member’s songwriting pen remains sharp. “Unlikely Angel” and the family melodrama “”Miss You-Miss Me” join the three-part harmony of the title cut in adding to Parton’s considerable legacy as a songwriter. The emphasis on banjo, fiddle and gospel-style harmony is reminiscent of 1999’s “The Grass Is Blue,” a Parton career highlight. Her update of the traditional murder ballad “Banks Of The Ohio” fits the bill, too.

But Parton expands her musical palette with two risky covers. She gives Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” a bluegrass treatment, turning Dylan’s bitter sneer into a melancholy farewell. She also transforms Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands On Me” into a surprisingly effective Baptist rave-up. The album could have done without the silly “Lover Du Jour” and the tacked-on duets “You Can’t Make Old Friends” with Kenny Rogers and “From Here To The Moon And Back” with Willie Nelson that previously appeared on other albums. But overall “Blue Smoke” is another triumph from one of American music’s most treasured artists.

Rascal Flatts, “Rewind” (Big Machine)

Rascal Flatts may have named their ninth album, “Rewind,” but musically the country-pop trio takes a much-needed step forward. Punching up arrangements with rock energy (“Payback”) and synth-pop flourishes (“Honeysuckle Lazy”), the band undergoes a contemporary country makeover as it celebrate its 15th year. The result makes for a more fun, mature and diverse sound — washing away the stale taste of recent outings. On “Rewind,” lead singer Gary LeVox, bassist-pianist-singer Jay Demarcus and guitarist Joe Don Rooney take a bigger hand in their production, cutting more than half of the album on their own.

Led by Demarcus, who has co-produced albums by Jo Dee Messina and the rock band Chicago, the trio moves the needle forward on the engaging “DJ Tonight” and the title cut, a recent country Top 10 hit. The group also brought in pop veteran Howard Benson, who produced five cuts, including the dance floor-ready “Powerful Stuff.” Old hand Dann Huff, who had produced the band since 2006, worked with the group on the catchy “Life’s A Song,” which sounds more like the old Rascal Flatts. But what makes “Rewind” exciting is that Rascal Flatts has fast-forwarded into the future.

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