Some recent CD releases worth listening to — or not:
Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga, “Cheek to Cheek” (Interscope/Columbia)
There is something to be said for taking a chance, especially when it comes to making music. Singers naturally gravitate to their comfort zones, producing that which they do best. But now and then, taking the road less-traveled can yield magical results. Such is the case on “Cheek to Cheek,” the glorious jazz album collaboration between Lady Gaga (one Stefani Germanotta) and the legendary Tony Bennett. The two artists, who previously collaborated on “The Lady Is a Tramp,” for Bennett’s Grammy-winning “Duets II” in 2011, here prove they are a musical match made in jazz/standards heaven.
From the opening strains of Cole Porter’s iconic “Anything Goes” (the sassy tune is celebrating its 80th birthday this year) to the closing track of Duke Ellington’s definitive 1931 jazz standard “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” there is so much to enjoy and discover.
For Gaga’s Little Monsters, this will be an eye-opener sans the usual stage props and controversial costuming; their queen is one heck of a sophisticated lady here, whether it’s gently caressing the lush ballad strains of “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” or owning the bold brassiness of “I Won’t Dance” or playfully scatting on “Firefly,” Gaga’s true measure as an artist is crystal clear: She has the voice and the jazz chops to carry the weight of these heady tunes. As for Bennett, at 88 he remains a class act, his vibrant raspy-edged vocals sizzling on the big band swing of “I Won’t Dance” while remaining perfectly lush on the velvety strains of “Don’t Wait Too Long.” As for the title tune, Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” is, to paraphrase the lyrics, heavenly — a duet perfectly suited to Bennett and Gaga’s intoxicating prowess.
In his 70-year career, Tony Bennett has only twice shared an entire album with one singer alone: once in 2002 with k.d. lang, and now a dozen years later with Lady Gaga. “Cheek to Cheek” was definitely worth the wait. — Miriam Di Nunzio, Chicago Sun-Times
Kenny Chesney, “The Big Revival” (Blue Chair/Columbia)
Kenny Chesney took a year off before recording his new album, “The Big Revival,” and it shows. Cohesive in scope, “The Big Revival” suggests the veteran country star is determined to extend his two-decade string of top 10 hits — something he has achieved with first single, “American Kids.”
Chesney has continually tinkered with his sound, growing more introspective in recent years while remaining the king of the arena sing-along. Chesney’s forte is that even his rockers offer snapshots of the lives of his fans, as he does here on “Beer Can Chicken,” which he co-wrote. A rocker like “Drink It Up” avoids the clichés flowing through contemporary country songs by injecting some real-life gravitas.
Working with longtime co-producer Buddy Cannon, Chesney slips some modern Nashville rhythms and loops into songs like “Til It’s Gone” and “Rock Bottom,” yet holds on to the classic-rock guitar sound he loves. But the album’s most powerful moment arrives with the closer “If This Bus Could Talk,” which traces Chesney’s story from a nervous greenhorn opening for Patty Loveless in 1993 through the twists and turns of a long career.
Today’s country arena rockers may model themselves on Chesney’s good-time style, but “The Big Revival” proves they still have a thing or two to learn from him. —Michael McCall, The Associated Press
Lee Ann Womack, “The Way I’m Livin’” (Sugar Hill)
For more than a decade, Lee Ann Womack ranked as the most traditional female artist in contemporary country music, holding on to old-school values in themes and arrangements as others in the genre kept incorporating more pop rhythms and rock energy.
With the beautiful and moving “The Way I’m Livin’,” her first album in six years, Womack turns completely against the grain of modern Nashville. Instead, she focuses on stripped-down, emotionally raw songs that bring out the best in her voice, which sounds as tender and expressive as ever.
Her husband Frank Liddell, who also produces Miranda Lambert and David Nail, sets Womack amid a small ensemble of studio experts who play with restraint yet match her emotional tone. The songs range from devastating narratives, such as the title song (written by Adam Wright), to spirituals (Mindy Smith’s “All His Saints”), off-kilter love songs (“Same Kind Of Different”) and well-selected covers of Hayes Carll, Julie Miller, Bruce Robison and Neil Young.
“The Way I’m Livin’” isn’t retro or old-fashioned. It simply presents an alternative direction of where modern country music could go, one that probes the way people live in a more realistic manner than the party-without-consequences themes dominating contemporary country radio. It also serves as a reminder that Womack is one of American music’s most powerful interpreters of good material, whatever the genre. — Michael McCall, Associated Press
Compiled by Miriam Di Nunzio, Chicago Sun-Times