Popular music reviews

Friday, December 12, 2014

iMusic: Holiday Music Buffet

One of Robin Williams’ last films before his untimely 2014 passing (let’s hope it’s better than The Angriest Man in Brooklyn), A Merry Friggin’ Christmas might be saved by the possibility of a shirtless Joel McHale. A Merry Friggin’ Christmas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Lakeshore) has a few things going for it. It opens and closes with a pair of songs performed by Rufus Wainwright – “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and the original “Christmas is for Kids.” The Belle Brigade, featuring out singer Barbara Gruska, performs the original “Going Home for Christmas.” Nice Jewish boy Ben Kweller rocks the house with his rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” and draws on his Texas roots in the original “Try to Love (Joy to the World).” Other holiday highlights include “The Weather Outside” by Spence Shapeero, “Best Time of the Year” by Alex Rhodes and “More Than I Wished For” by FM Radio.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

iMusic: Making the Yuletide Gay

For his first holiday album, A Michael Feinstein Christmas (Concord), Great American Songbook specialist Michael Feinstein doesn’t stray too far from his roots. Accompanies by acclaimed jazz pianist Alan Broadbent, Feinstein’s renditions of Christmas classics are sources of endless joy. The arrangements allow both Feinstein and Broadbent to shine like the lights on a Christmas tree. Sure, we know these songs, including “The Christmas Song,” “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “What are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” by heart, but Feinstein touches our hearts with these simple and pleasing renditions. Leave it to a nice, Jewish gay boy to refresh these timeworn classics in the way that Feinstein has.

Friday, November 14, 2014

imusic: Everything Old is New Again

Here’s an idea that probably looked good on paper. Have Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, tackle some songs that were hits for other modern music royalty on Sings The Great Diva Classics (RCA). Sounds good, right? Oh, but the execution! It’s enough to make the Queen of Hearts declare, “Off with her head!” Things go south, right from the start with Aretha proving she’s no Etta James (or Cyndi Lauper, for that matter) with her reading of “At Last.” “The Aretha Version” of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” which interweaves “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” fares somewhat better, although Aretha’s approach eschews enunciation for vocal gymnastics. Franklin sounds like she’s trying to joust with Gladys Knight on “Midnight Train to Georgia” and the combination of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” is another case of a concept losing something in the translation. The luckiest people in the world are those who don’t listen to Aretha wend her way through “People” and nothing will ever compare to the butchery of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” performed in a finger-snapping jazzy rendition. Please don’t let the Snickers commercial that Franklin did in 2010 be the best of her 21st century work.

Friday, October 31, 2014

imusic: Name Game

Born Steven Demetre Georgiou, Cat Stevens was one of the most popular recording artists of the 1970s. His string of hit singles included “Wild World,” “Moonshadow,” “Morning Has Broken,” and “Peace Train,” to mention a few. Anyone familiar with Cat Stevens 1970s out knows that he was an artist who was always searching, so it wasn’t all that surprising when he underwent a religious conversion to Islam, changed his name (yet again) to Yusuf, and went into retirement. Yusuf returned to the land of major labels with his 2006 album Another Cup, and followed it with 2009’s Roadslinger. On the bluesy effort, Tell ’Em I’m Gone (Legacy), credited to Yusuf / Cat Stevens, the singer/songwriter darkens the sky with his cloudy cover of “You Are My Sunshine,” and sings the blues on “Editing Floor Blues,” “Big Boss Man,” “Gold Digger,” and the title tune. There are glimpses of beauty to be found on “Dying to Live” and “Doors.”

Friday, October 17, 2014

Vinyl Version: In the Nick of Time

There’s a lot to be said about the 25th anniversary 180-gram vinyl reissue of Bonnie Raitt’s multi-Grammy Award-winning 1989 album Nick of Time (Capitol), remastered from the original analog tapes. First, rest assured that it sounds as marvelous and timeless as the first time you heard it, on vinyl or CD (it was originally released in 1989, after all). Producer/musician Don Was (of Was Not Was fame) met the challenge of lifting the longtime singer, songwriter and blues diva out of shocking semi-obscurity and getting her the long overdue attention she had deserved. Sure, Raitt (the son of Broadway actor and singer John Raitt), had released nine albums on Warner Brothers, from 1971 to 1986, gaining a devoted following, skirting chart success and developing a devoted following in the heyday of FM radio, but superstardom eluded her.

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