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Sara Evans, “Words” (Born to Fly)
Many musicians like to say their work is deeply personal but Sara Evans may have taken that a step further in her new, impressive album, “Words”.
The country star invites her 14-year-old daughter to sing on “Marquee Sign”, gathers three siblings to contribute harmonies on “Night Light” and sings about her oldest son soon going to college in “Letting You Go”.
In the wrong hands, such moves might feel manipulative. Not here, with an Evans brimming with confidence and using her immensely appealing voice on a batch of very strong songs. “Words” is the first album on her own record label, Born to Fly Records, and it captures an artist in full musical flight.
Teaming up again with co-producer Mark Bright, Evans co-wrote three of the album’s 14 tunes and taps some top-notch talent, including Pistol Annies’ Ashley Monroe, The Isaacs’ Sonya Isaacs, Claude Kelley (“Grenade”), Hillary Lindsey (“Girl Crush”), Caitlyn Smith (“Wasting All These Tears”) and Heather Morgan (“Beat of the Music”).
Evans may be in a family kind of mood on this, her eighth studio album, but she’s also picked some songs that show off a wilder side, like the intensely lusty “I Don’t Trust Myself” and a shimmering cover of The SteelDrivers’ ode to a bad break up, “Long Way Down”.
Standouts include the hard-driving, cross-over stunner “Marquee Sign” (“I wish you were a pack of cigarettes/’Cause you would’ve come with a warning”), the poppy “Rain and Fire”, the world-beat friendly “Diving in Deep” and the catchy “I Need a River”.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else breathing so much life into the title track, a delicate slip of a song, and Evans shows off stunning vocal control on “All the Love You Left Me”. Even an acoustic version of her 2011 hit “A Little Bit Stronger”, co-written by Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, might be better than the original.
Artistic freedom has never sounded so good.
Chronixx, “Chronology” (Soul Circle)
On his first, full-length album, Jamaican musician Chronixx modestly sings that “If one person remembers my name, that means I made a change”. Well, that was easy: It’s going to be hard to forget him after this astonishingly rich album. Chronixx’s debut sounds like a greatest hits compilation — and he’s not yet 25.
Chronixx’s 15-track “Chronology” is a mix of relatively old and new songs that show how far he can stretch, ranging from 2013’s breezy reggae “Smile Jamaica” to this year’s sexy, R&B-flavored “Majesty”. It veers from the pop radio-ready “Tell Me Now” and “I Can” to the twangy, almost country “Christina” and the socially uplifting “Selassie Children”.
Isolating standouts is a ridiculous task but some include the political slow jam “Black Is Beautiful” — with the lines, “This is not a racist song/This is a song for the children who was never told about where their race is from” — and the sweetly spiritual, sing-a-long anthem “Legend”.
Chronixx, born Jamar McNaughton, gets funky when he teams up with his father — the dancehall artist Chronicle — on the terrific “Big Bad Sound”. On the sludgy dancehall tune “Likes”, he calls out Drake for his so-called tropical house exploits and also mocks those searching for internet fame (“Do it for the love/Me nuh do it for the likes”.)
Chronixx had a hand in writing every song and produced or co-produced the bulk of “Chronology”. In it he raps, sings, uses his falsetto, employs patois slang, backs off for the odd guitar solos and uses a full orchestra for three tracks.
Lyrically, he gets spiritual, serious and empowering, and also a little lusty and cheeky. “Forget your troubles and rock with me”, he asks. He respectfully nods to the past — mentioning reggae giants Bob Marley and Peter Tosh — and yet is also completely current, offering shout-outs to “Black Beatles” and Venus and Serena Williams.
“I am a lion but you never heard me roar”, he sings.
Now we have.
Arcade Fire, “Everything Now” (Everything Now/Columbia)
To put it in the corniest possible terms, artistic progression can be a stairway to heaven or a slippery slope. The Beatles in the 1960s, David Bowie in the ’70s and Prince in the ’80s are gold standards of artists leading audiences to places they didn’t know they wanted to go — occasionally alienating fans and making the odd misstep but confidently charging forward, following the muse with self-awareness and self-assurance that it would all make sense in the end. Of course, the line between a beckoning hand is a fine one: Neil Young’s all-electronic album “Trans” and U2’s irony-laden “Pop” are classic examples of the muse leading the artist toward (if not over) a cliff.
The situation gets even more complicated when one of the world’s biggest rock bands seemingly grows tired of being a rock band — witness U2 in the 1990s and Radiohead in the early 2000s — which is apparently where Montreal’s Arcade Fire finds itself with its fifth album (and first through Columbia), “Everything Now”. Produced by the band with Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, Pulp’s Steve Mackey and longtime associate Markus Dravs, it finds the group pushing against the boundaries of its template, trying on various styles — mutations of ’70s pop, R&B, even dancehall — that sometimes work gloriously but often hang awkwardly on their anthemic sound like an ill-fitting new outfit (especially frontman Win Butler’s awkward attempts at rapping).
Yet if the only fruit of this collaboration were the album’s sparkling title track, it would have been worthwhile. A blatant tribute to Abba’s “Dancing Queen” (with a little bit of Yvonne Elliman’s disco-era hit “If I Can’t Have You” thrown in), it’s gilt and glittering and gorgeous, with a soaring, piano-driven hook and a swooning orchestra underpinning the surprisingly restrained verses. Sublime and sumptuous, it’s one of the year’s best singles.
Elsewhere, the fast and manic “Infinite Content” recalls the band’s shout-along earlier material before it segues abruptly into an acoustic arrangement reminiscent of their 2010 album “The Suburbs”; “Put Your Money on Me” combines a pulsing electronic bassline with a chorus that also evokes latter-day Abba; the closing “We Don’t Deserve Love” is a haunting ballad with a cascading keyboard melody loping over gentle acoustic guitars. (Agencies)
However, the forays into new terrain largely fall flat. “Signs of Life” starts off like an early ’70s funk song (a la The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”) with handclaps and a driving bassline and a distance police siren, then morphs into an ’80s funk workout that recalls Blondie’s “Rapture”, with some spectacularly stiff rapping from Butler. “Creature Comfort” begins promisingly with a hot, buzzing beat but is marred by unsettling lyrics apparently about a suicide. “Electric Blue” has a strong groove and a zooming bassline but is hobbled by a screechy lead vocal from keyboardist Regine Chassagne. And the nadir comes with “Chemistry”, which has an awkward dancehall lilt in the beat and horns, a singsong melody.
“Everything Now” is the uncomfortable fusion that many feared Arcade Fire’s last one — 2013’s sprawling “Reflektor”, a collaboration with dance-rock avatar James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem — would be. But where that album found Murphy integrating a beefier bottom into the group’s familiar sound, this collaboration is a trickier fit. While the production throughout the album is stunning and Bangalter’s fingerprints abound — from the pulsating rhythm tracks reminiscent of Daft Punk’s recent work with The Weeknd to the soaring string arrangements that are a hallmark of their 2013 Grammy Album of the Year winner, “Random Access Memories” — the irony and deep references inherent in Daft Punk and Pulp’s work jars against Arcade Fire’s ingrained earnestness; the elaborate electronic rhythms clash with their anthemic, large-print hooks; and humor is a hat that this band wears uneasily. It would have been far worse had Arcade Fire played it safe — yet it remains to be seen whether this challenging and potentially polarizing album will inspire their rabid fanbase to follow pied-piper style, or resist like a dog being dragged to the vet. (Agencies)
By Mark Kennedy
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