Popular music reviews

Friday, April 17, 2015

Madonna and On and On and On

Madonna’s Rebel Heart (Maverick / Live Nation / Interscope) is her best and most accomplished album since Ray of Light. The deluxe edition, which contains 19 (!) tracks, finds the almost immaterial girl (see MDNA and Hard Candy) on the road to redemption. For instance, there’s a lot of Catholic symbolism and references (oy, the Kabbalah community must be wiping the shvitz from their foreheads now that the meshuggeh shiksa has gone back to her roots) on the album, particularly in songs such as “Devil Pray,” “Illuminati,” “Inside Out,” “Messiah,” and the sexually explicit “Holy Water.” The best tracks, including the non-denominational gospel fervor of “Living for Love,” the simplistic but enjoyable “Hold Tight,” the sensitive and personal “Joan of Arc” and “HeartBreakCity,” the wordplay of “Body Shop,” the almost comically self-referential “Veni Vidi Vici,” and the acoustic/electro title cut, all qualify as an artistic comeback. However, Madonna’s overuse of “bitch” on “Unapologetic Bitch” and “Bitch I’m Madonna” (two song titles, really?) are detractors.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Covers Story

An album of lullabies is a risky proposition. In order for a lullaby to be effective it has to have the capacity to lull the listener into a state of relaxation thus leading to sleep. However, if you fall asleep while listening to one or two songs and miss the rest, is that considered a success or a failure? Luckily for Anika Larsen, currently seen on Broadway as songwriter Cynthia Weil in the Tony Award-winning musical Beautiful, her album Sing You to Sleep (Yellow Sound) has enough energy and variety to enjoy while you are still awake (even if it’s a struggle to do so). The material on the disc will speak to listeners of all ages, from “Somewhere Out There” (from An American Tail) and “Baby Mine” (from Dumbo) to more adult fare such as Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love” (which makes an effective lullaby), Bruno Mars’ “Count On Me,” and James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes,” performed as a duet with Tony winner Jessie Mueller.

Friday, March 06, 2015

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 of that era 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, February 06, 2015

Divas of Winter

Like Mavis Staples and Bettye LaVette, Candi Staton has enjoyed the fruits of being rediscovered by a younger generation of musicians, thereby gaining her a new audience. To be fair, gay men helped give Staton a career boost in the 1970s when her disco singles “Victim” and “Young Hearts Run Free” were spun regularly by DJs in gay clubs. There are no especially clubby cuts on Life Happens (Beracah / Fame), but there are heartfelt soul tunes delivered in Staton’s distinctive vocal style that are sure to appeal to the fans from all walks of her fan-base. Standout numbers include “Commitment,” “I Ain’t Easy to Love” (featuring John Paul White, formerly of The Civil Wars, and Jason Isbell of Drive-By Truckers), the musical lesson of “She’s After Your Man,” “Treat Me Like A Secret,” “My Heart’s On Empty,” and the bonus track “Where I’m At.”

Friday, January 23, 2015

Woody Lissauer

A Baltimore Musician’s ‘Adventures in Loveland’

I met Woody Lissauer back in the early 90s at Sowebo. His long blond hair flaying in the wind, a pearly white smile, and charming stage presence combined with amazing musical abilities made him stand out in the crowd of performers for me that night. I knew he had real talent and I liked him. We were introduced and hit it off immediately. We hung out at his place after the festival, talked for hours, and he showed me all the various instruments he knew how to play. I was incredibly impressed.

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