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Sunday, February 17, 2008


Kylie Minogue (EMI)

Grade: A

It’s puzzling how Kylie Minogue’s iconic stature in Europe and her native Australia hasn’t translated into much in the way of U.S. success.

And the mystery deepens if her new “X” doesn’t catch on in America, because a good chunk of the release sounds like a facsimile of the best recent music from Gwen Stefani, Nelly Furtado, Britney Spears and numerous others active on U.S. charts.

Twenty years into her pop career, Minogue out-chameleons Madonna on “X.” Europeans can feast on the standout tracks — the electro-grainy, Goldfrapp-esque “Like a Drug,” the crunchy/catchy slinky single “2 Hearts,” the Daft Punk-ish robotic hypno-funk “Speakerphone” and the mesmerizing vintage-Kylie sprawling dance track “The One.” Minogue is at the top of her game with all of these cuts, a crafty patchwork of contemporary sounds custom-made for her established fans on the other side of the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, backed by an army of producers, the 39-year-old Minogue returns from her 2005 battle with breast cancer ready to fight for U.S. airplay, as she swings from playful fluff like “No More Rain” and “Wow” (both of which are suitable for Radio Disney) to the rumbling, naughty “Blackout” Britney-like “Nu-di-ty,” to the chunky, bleeping, ersatz Stefani “Heart Beat Rock” to the All-American hip-pop “All I See.”

Minogue’s girlish voice — first heard around the world two decades ago with her hit remake of “The Loco-Motion” — hasn’t especially matured over the years. But she’s learned to finesse it and make it work for her. Besides, she’s not trying to horn in on the soul singers’ turf; she has her own huge niche, and she’s merely looking to expand it.

— Chuck Campbell, The Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel


Various acts (Rhino)

Grade: B

The little movie that could has spawned a little soundtrack that could, too.

The quirky “Juno,” starring the relatively unknown Ellen Page in the title role, has broken out in the past couple of months, topping the $100 million mark at the U.S. box office and landing a Best Picture Oscar nomination as well as a nomination for Page as Best Actress.

The correspondingly quirky soundtrack has likewise picked up momentum, chugging all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and making a name of the relatively unknown Kimya Dawson, a member of the indie act Moldy Peaches who sings on a big chunk of the compilation’s songs.

Dawson is something of a real-life counterpart to Page’s character: She’s intelligent and offbeat, droll and provocative, and both tough and vulnerable. The soundtrack also features classic heavy hitters — The Kinks (“A Well Respected Man”), Sonic Youth (covering the Carpenters’ hit “Superstar”), Mott the Hoople (“All the Young Dudes”), Buddy Holly (“Dearest”) and the Velvet Underground (“I’m Sticking With You”) plus better-known modern-rock acts Belle & Sebastian (“Piazza, New York Catcher,” “Expectations”) and Cat Power (“Sea of Love”). Dawson would hardly seem to have a chance with her near-fragile voice and folk-ish numbers, but just as Page stands out from the movie’s cast, Dawson stands out on the soundtrack.

It helps that the widely familiar acts all perform songs that complement her numbers — and for a collection of tracks that span four decades by a cornucopia of artists, this soundtrack is remarkably seamless.

Yet Dawson’s persona pops as she innocently sings, “I’m pretty sure you have a new girlfriend” on “Tire Swing” and, “I like boys with strong convictions and convicts with perfect diction” on “So Nice So Smart.” She best sums it up on the Moldy Peaches’ “Anyone Else But You,” a duet with her performing partner Adam Green where she sings, “We sure are cute for two ugly people/I don’t see what anyone can see in anyone else but you.”

— Chuck Campbell, The Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel


Lenny Kravitz (Virgin)

Grade: B

The return-to-roots album is one of rock’s greatest clichés. An artist who has lost his way has only to reclaim the songs or sounds of his past, and the slate is cleared. It’s certainly time for Lenny Kravitz, a man who has made millions reworking all manner of rock clichés, to embrace this one as well. But his eighth outing begs a fascinating question: What happens when an artist has only others’ roots to reclaim?

Twenty years ago, Kravitz released “Let Love Rule,” a crazy quilt of classic rock scraps from The Beatles, Sly Stone and Led Zeppelin. It was an incredibly derivative debut, but also colorful and fun. And with minor variations, “It Is Time For a Love Revolution” is essentially the same album, from the dry, ’70s studio ambience to the nakedly recycled riffs. There’s even a boneheaded antiwar song, “Back in Vietnam,” to further the secondhand (now third-hand?) hippie vibe.

Whether he’s rewriting Bowie’s “Fame” (“Dancin’ Till Dawn”) or James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” (“Will You Marry Me”), Kravitz can still create aural pleasure from borrowed treasure. It’s what he does best; his musical past may be pilfered, but at least he treats it well.

— Dan LeRoy, Hartford Courant


British Sea Power (Rough Trade)

Grade: B+

Until now, British Sea Power has been better-known for its famous eccentricities — a love of bird-watching, shows with a guy in a 10-foot bear suit onstage, reported fisticuffs with bands they were collaborating with — than the band’s actual music.

So when Sea Power’s latest album asks the musical question “Do You Like Rock Music?,” it’s tempting to react the way New Yorkers react to all those Times Square hawkers who clog the sidewalks annoyingly asking, “Do you like comedy?”

This time out, though, British Sea Power genuinely wants to know, it seems. On “Do You Like Rock Music?” the band has apparently reached the early ’90s in its off-kilter survey of great guitar-dominated sounds. Instead of another droning appreciation of Joy Division or Echo and the Bunnymen, the Brighton band has moved on to combining a bit of Julian Cope’s cleverness with the anthemic aspirations of Arcade Fire, resulting in a happy medium that lands somewhere around ’90s British exports the Catherine Wheel and the Candy Skins.

That’s not to say British Sea Power isn’t still odd, with a tribute to physicist Niels Bohr that careens from ballad to bashing rocker (“Atom”) and a pretty instrumental “Great Skua” named for the seabird of the same name. The glorious single “Waving Flags” — which opens with “You are astronomical fans of alcohol, so welcome in” — is the best example of the band’s new directness, an uplifting anthem of inclusion that could bring Sea Power new converts one stadium at a time.

— Glenn Gamboa, Long Island Newsday


Maceo Parker (Heads Up)

Grade: B

While on the question of funk, let’s not forget the real thing. Alto saxophonist Maceo Parker, who helped shape the funk field while in the employ of James Brown and George Clinton, mixes it up here with the WDR big band of Germany.

The two-CD collection starts with a tribute to Ray Charles, enabling Parker to croon all over tunes from “I’m Busted” to “Hit the Road Jack.” The tunes generally work for Parker, even though his vocals prove to be a much weaker vessel than his alto, and way less potent than the voice of the man he is honoring.

The second CD gets more overtly funky. Along with his WDR compatriots, Parker draws in bassist Rodney “Skeet” Curtis and drummer Dennis Chambers, both alums of a true brand, Parliament-Funkadelic. The tunes, recorded live in early 2007, seem to go on past their freshness date. And the horns do what old habits expect them to do. But there’s no disputing the sizzle and sass that Parker re-creates.

— Karl Stark, Philadelphia Inquirer


Jack Johnson (Brushfire)

Grade: D

Surf music used to mean caterwauling Dick Dale guitars or sunny Beach Boys harmonies. And it’s true that former pro surfer Jack Johnson draws on the warm power of the sun — “Sleep Through the Static” was “recorded with 100% solar energy.” It says so right there on its eco-friendly package. But there’s not a whiff of Banzai Pipeline adventure in Johnson’s music. Instead, it’s all about mellowing down easy around the bonfire after the day’s excitement is done. Not such a bad thing in itself, but while Johnson’s laid-back vibe may make him a coffeehouse superstar, his tunes are rarely involving and his love songs’ sentiments are generally hackneyed. “She gives me presents, with her presence alone” is about as well as he can do on “Angel.” There’s no static to be found, but plenty of sleepiness.

— Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer


MGMT (Columbia)

Grade: A

In a year when the Jesus and Mary Chain and Spiritualized reunite and Roky Erickson and Kevin Ayers come alive, all styles and ages of psychedelia seem in full swing. Still, masters and servants alike will need a leg up if they’re to beat the frisky, freak-a-delic delights of MGMT, the new kinks on the block.

With Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann, Brooklyn’s Ben Goldwasser and Andrew Vanwyngarden make laughing electro-psych with melodies (”Weekend Warriors”) as majestic as they are memorable. Dense, fuzz-toned guitars and tooting recorders fuse with cranky Mellotrons and layers of breathy vocals to create atmospheres as ferocious as they are fragile. The Lips are a great comparison — as long as Bowie circa 1972 is part of the equation. MGMT makes psychedelic noise that is naively humorous with dizzy danceable grooves and grand slips of the absurd on “Electric Feel.”

Not so innocent or absurd, though. When they sing “Let’s make some music, make some money, find some models for wives” in “Time to Pretend,” you can’t help think MGMT is serious.

— A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer


The Blind Boys of Alabama” (Time/Life)

Grade: B

Just because they’re an institution doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to try new things. After 70-plus years as gospel greats, the Blind Boys of Alabama made their first recording foray to New Orleans.

While the aging Boys still pack plenty of testifying power on their own, the album gives a fresh Crescent City spin to some gospel warhorses, making for a stirring combination of the earthy and the spiritual. The Hot 8 Brass Band lends a heavy dose of funkiness to “Make a Better World” and “I’ll Fly Away,” and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band adds some second-line strut to “Cloudy Day” and Dixieland touches elsewhere. Meanwhile, another New Orleans institution, Allen Toussaint, provides typically elegant piano accompaniment to the ballad “If I Could Help Somebody.”

— Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer