Some recent CD releases worth listening to — or not.
Neil Diamond, “Melody Road,” (Capitol)
Re-married life seems to agree with Neil Diamond. On “Melody Road, his first album of new material since 2008, and the first since marrying in 2012 for the third time, the 73-year-old legend is pretty much all about romance and finding the meaning of true love. Strummin’ that ol’ guitar that’s served him well since day one of his career, Diamond navigates a collection of laid-bare tracks and emotions.
The rhythmic and impossibly catchy “Someting Blue” reveals itself as pretty and playful (in the song’s video he’s even playing with a pack of puppies!), the singer forever grateful about finally meeting the right person.
The haunting and beautiful “The Art of Love” is slow and quiet; gentle strings and acoustic guitar lifts this one above the rest. “Alone at the Ball” finds the lover down and out in the album’s most pounding track. “Ooo Do I Wanna Be Yours,” oozes longing, while “Marry Me Now,” well, just about says it all. “Nothing But a Heartache” is the album’s most dour track, all about love gone wrong; Diamond’s anguish spills from the lyrics.
In a recent interview, Diamond said the album “tells the story of his life over the past 20 years, with songs about heartache, family and finding love.” The lighthearted and ultimately upbeat “Melody Road” truly is that journey, one that proves you’re never too old to fall in love. And when you’re that happy, you want to shout it to the mountaintops. Or in the case of Neil Diamond, sing it out ever-so-sweetly to your lady love. —Miriam Di Nunzio/Chicago Sun-Times
Little Big Town, “Pain Killer” (Capitol Nashville)
How do the four vocalists of Little Big Town respond to the platinum success of the group’s most rewarded album, 2012’s “Tornado?” Certainly not by playing it safe.
On their sixth album, “Pain Killer,” Little Big Town — Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook — experiment endlessly with harmonies, arrangements, loops and sound effects. The whistles, odd beats and unconventional guitar work that woozily circle through the first single, “Day Drinking,” only hint at the shenanigans the singers and their producer Jay Joyce cram into these 13 new songs.
Most of it is for the sake of fun — you can hear how gleeful the group is as they test outlandish ideas on such songs as “Quit Breaking Up With Me,” ”Good People,” the Lorde-like “Things You Don’t Think About” and the title song. But they also show off the beauty of their blended voices on the hushed “Silver and Gold” and the stunning “Live Forever,” written by the group with Jeremy Spillman and Ryan Tyndell.
The Grammy-winning band only stumbles on “Faster Gun,” with its awkward cowboy similes. The rest of the album keeps raising the bar: Little Big Town, from early on, never followed country music formulas. With “Pain Killer,” their boldness continues to pay off. —Michael McCall/AP
Aretha Franklin, “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics” (RCA Records)
Aretha Franklin sings the sound of America like nobody else alive — a point of unceasing pride for Detroit, the place she was raised and remains near today. So the release of “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics” raises one question right off: Does the singular Queen of Soul really need to borrow from other divas?
The answer is she doesn’t need to do anything, but a dive into the realm of other divas is a solid move.
Taking on standards is a common, often lucrative, move for career artists of a certain age and older. But it can be risky, revealing unfavorable comparisons and weaknesses brought on by the march of time. Yet in her uniquely Aretha way, she emerges largely ready for the challenge and more often than not scores commercial and artistic points.
The next question many prospective listeners will ask is if the 72-year-old Franklin can still bring it. The answer is, for the most part, yes, and she makes a strong case on “At Last.” The demanding range of the song made famous by Etta James can lay bare deficiencies, and Franklin reveals none — nailing the opening line and even coming back at the end for some swoops to show she’s got chops to spare.
Aretha goes into the domain of a 21st-century soul diva and returns with a thumping disco version of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” While it doesn’t eclipse the original, it offers some new perspective as well as an inspiring mash-up with Motown Records’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The result shows the timelessness of both Aretha and Adele’s new classic.
Somewhat less deep is “I’m Every Woman/Respect,” which seems to be a battle to a draw with Chaka Khan’s original — at least until “Respect” pops up in the middle. It’s a groovalicious and welcome update of her own classic — so much so that many listeners might wish it didn’t disappear so quickly and return to the pleasant but by no means persuasive “Woman.”
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is another Motown throw-down — a disco take on the gem by Diana Ross and The Supremes. Franklin, who didn’t sing for the hometown label, comes confidently and in full voice as if to say, “Diana, you may be Supreme, but I am the Queen.” That said, it could have benefited from a different arrangement, built on soulful funk or jazz found elsewhere on the album.
To that end, one of the finest moments is the straight-up swing of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” written by Prince and popularized by Sinead O’Connor. Franklin expertly recalls the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, with some spot-on scatting. It’s light and tight all at once — a fitting way to close out the collection.
Aretha’s latest clicks by spanning genres and generations. And even if it wasn’t her intention, it’s hard not to see the album as part compliment, part competition. “Divas” proves Franklin’s still got it, and it shows that we’ve still got her. —Jeff Karoub/AP
Leonard Cohen, “Popular Problems” (Columbia Records)
There’s no reason, of course, why an artist should slow down at 80. If the mind is still sharp — and, as in Leonard Cohen’s case, the bank account still a bit low, thanks to a larcenous financial adviser — a singer-songwriter should be able to soldier on. But the danger is obvious: If the singer sinks into self-parody, or simply runs out of things to say, no one may have the guts to intervene.
That’s not a worry with Cohen, whose new album “Popular Problems” brims with his trademark wit. The arrangements are simple and sparse, with some slow rhythm and blues urgency, but it is Cohen’s voice that surprises. The words are more spoken than sung, the delivery is gruff, and he sounds more bluesy than ever: Not bitter, not angry, but deeply fatalistic, and at times, just raunchy.
The defiant tone is set in “Slow,” which opens his 13th studio album with a paean to lovemaking (and possibly music) conducted at a languid pace. “It’s not because I’m old, and it’s not what dying does, I always liked it slow, slow is in my blood,” he says, drawing out the last word.
The familiar sound is augmented by the backup singers Cohen has long used for both irony and emphasis, and the production by co-writer Patrick Leonard gives Cohen the space he needs to fully express his moods. Some of the themes are grim, dealing with dislocation and loss — including a mournful post-Katrina elegy for New Orleans — but he never sounds defeated.
There is no sense that Cohen is running out of gas, or passion. If anything, he sounds more joyful than in earlier incarnations of his long career, which started with the publication of his poetry in Canada in the 1950s. The nine-track “Popular Problems” closes with “You Got Me Singing,” a celebration of spirit that forecasts more work ahead: “You got me singing even though the world is gone, you got me thinking that I’d like to carry on,” he whispers. It sounds like a promise he intends to keep. —Gregory Katz/AP
Jessie Ware, “Tough Love” (Interscope)
Jessie Ware’s “Tough Love” is lovely, and that’s not a tepid endorsement. No, the English singer’s sophomore disc is lovely in the way of a sunset or a cruise around the lazy river after a long day at the waterpark.
The whole thing is a pleasure to enjoy, with Ware laying bare her aches and pains over a series of down-tempo tracks, her vocals easing listeners from song-to-song like a gentle current.
The title track and lead single, produced by BenZel (the duo that includes heavy-hitter Benny Blanco), has Prince-in-the-80s written all over it, and Ware certainly does the vibe justice. She channels the music icon again on “You & I (Forever),” a gem that credits fellow Prince fan, R&B singer Miguel, who also lends his songwriting help on the deliciously sultry R&B track, “Kind of. Sometimes. Maybe.”
“Sweetest Song” very nearly lives up to its title, thanks to lush layers of guitars and echoing background vocals. “Champagne Kisses” is fun, and the vocal harmonies of “Keep on Lying” are nothing short of beautiful.
Ware’s easygoing pace sometimes works against her, though, increasing the likelihood that listeners are lulled into listening autopilot. But an unexpected musical build up or twist, such as in the final minute or so of the Ed Sheeran-assisted “Say You Love Me,” does a good job of keeping ears engaged.
Other times, like on “Pieces,” Ware arrests attention from the beginning. “It’s illogical, I was nothing without you, you oughta know, I was lost when I found you,” she sings, exerting her voice over a striking arrangement of strings.
Ware’s “Tough Love” is certainly not for everyone, but of course, neither are sunsets or lazy rivers.
—Melanie J. Sims/AP