Whitney Houston I Look To You Arista Records
Yeah, we get it. Kudos to Whitney for getting off the pipe, reality TV and Bobby Brown. She’s back and looking healthy — if not slightly glazed over — on the album cover. And it’s about time. Somebody has got to give Mariah a run for her diva money.
But which Whitney is back is the question: Is it show-stopping powerhouse ’80s Whitney, ’90s blockbuster multi-media Whitney or glossy new-millennial Whitney?
The answer is all of the above.
Whitney covers all the expected stylistic bases on her comeback album and comes out of the gate strong with the very-classic-sounding R&B funk of “Million Dollar Bill.” She follows up with more modern electro-tinged tracks like the pumping “Nothin’ But Love” and the pop-y “Call You Tonight.”
It wouldn’t be a Whitney Houston album if there wasn’t some soaring inspirational balladry, and the sap is flowing at a healthy clip on both the title track and “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength.” They’re fine enough, but not earth-shattering specimens and, in all honesty, after pulling herself out of the abyss, Houston deserves to lyrically pat herself on the back for a few songs.
That same kind of balladry works a bit better when it takes up the first half of “A Song For You,” which then dives headlong into expertly executed and danceable techno.
As a reigning diva, it’s pretty much a given that Houston is going to take a stab at whatever the latest hotness is in pop music. “For The Lovers,” with its synth-happy groove, is a prime example of how this can work. Thankfully, Houston’s smart enough not to get wrapped up in the autotune craze. But her collaboration with Akon on “Like I Never Left” falls a little flat.
“I Look To You” is a solid effort at putting a fresh shine on Houston’s diva crown.
Meshell Ndegeocello Devil’s Halo Downtown Music
To call “Devil’s Halo” a stunning, jaw-dropping effort is an understatement.
Out singer, multi-instrumentalist and all-around sonic bad-ass Ndegeocello has always fearlessly explored and pushed at the boundaries of R&B, jazz, funk and rock, but on this, her eighth studio album, she still manages to exceed expectations with assured genre-bending music that feels familiar and, at the same time, altogether fresh and new.
Ndegeocello makes the sexy and the melancholy work in perfect tandem, the likes of which has not been seen since the peak of Sade’s career, on tracks like “Tie One On,” “Hair of the Dog” and “White Girl.” Ambient soundscapes and alternative rock swirl around each other to create a superbly trippy vibe on “Slaughter.” Alternative tones and restrained synthesizer lines pepper the more infectious songs, like the upbeat rock of “Bright Shiny Morning” and the earthy groove “Blood on the Curb.”
The biggest surprises on “Devil’s Halo” are Ndegeocello’s mournful and folky “Crying In Your Beer” and her powerfully sexy reimagining of Ready For The World’s ’80s hit “Love You Down.” The latter would have been a cheesy effort in less skilled hands, but Ndegeocello’s version makes it the sexiest song on an album overflowing with lust-inducing moments that should leave all but the most jaded listener breathless.
Lynda Carter At Last Potomac Productions
We don’t need a golden lasso to make us tell the truth on this one.
Can Lynda Carter (aka TV’s “Wonder Woman” from 1975-79) sing?
Does she know how to pick a decent list of standards for her jazz album?
There you have it. That’s pretty much all you need to know to figure out if you want to pick up this album. “At Last” is pretty much what you can expect from someone who probably has very little to prove and nothing to lose as an artist who has a significant degree of name recognition to fall back on.
The performances on the album are tight, but very middle-of-the-road: laidback and pleasant but nothing especially challenging as far as repertoire or panache. “Cloudburst” and “Deed I Do” both have a fun and playful energy not seen elsewhere on the album. Songs like “Million Dollar Secret” and “Secret of Life” hit their groove a little better than the rather sedate interpretations of R&B classics like “You Send Me” and “Where Did Our Love Go.”
Maybe we’re wrong for hoping someone who used to run around in boots and a shiny one-piece kicking bad-guy ass would be a bit more aggressive and borderline campy as a jazz singer. But once you get past that, “At Last” is an effort any lounge singer would be glad to put her/his stamp on.
Madonna Celebration Warner Bros.
It’s hard to justify the two-disc hits collection, considering this is Madonna’s fourth such collection and anyone who really, really has to have the two new tracks offered could easily download them from iTunes.
“Revolver” does a good job at being a bouncy pop track, but it sounds more like a Rihanna castoff than something worthy of being added to the Madonna pantheon. Plus, the guest verse by Lil’ Wayne doesn’t add much excitement to the track. She could have spent her money better. The other new track, “Celebration,” is more in line with Madonna’s current sound, dripping with catchy but inconsequential techno-pop.
The rest of the collection is packed with high points, but if you’re one of the zillions of people who own 1991’s “The Immaculate Collection,” you’d already know that: “Celebration” has all but one of the songs from that collection. There are also later hits, the best of which come from 2000’s “Music” and 2005’s “Confessions on a Dance Floor” and the least of which come from last year’s “Hard Candy.”
Then there are some omissions about which hardcore Madonna fans might get up in arms. It’s hard to believe “Who’s That Girl” and “Miles Away” made the cut but “Oh Father” and “Human Nature” did not.
There is a lot to celebrate on this compilation, but the problem is we’ve already been celebrating the best Madonna has to offer for more than a decade.
Otep Smash the Control Machine Victory Records
Otep, fronted and guided by lesbian poet Otep Shamaya, is absolutely brutal and relentless both sonically and lyrically on the band’s latest effort, “Smash the Control Machine.”
Shamaya’s voice is both the yin and the yang, soft and seductive one minute and unchained and lacerating the next. The music doesn’t slouch either. The album’s opener, “Rise, Rebel, Resist,” is a crushing soundtrack with an unapologetic manifesto: “If I can’t be loved, then I’ll be hated.” Other tracks, like “Numb and Dumb,” “Sweet Tooth” and “Unveiled,” keep up the blistering pace throughout the record as well.
But if Otep were all speed and heaviness, “Smash” would wear thin quickly. Luckily it doesn’t, as Otep shows an interesting range of dynamics. The piano- and violin-driven “Ur A Wmn Now” is delicate-sounding but devastating with its lyrical content. “Kisses & Kerosene” is a disturbing revenge/snuff fantasy that for some reason sounds unbelievably sexy and poetic coming from Otep. There’s also a creepy hidden 13th track that’s irresistible.
Try not to give your neighbors nightmares while listening to this worthy and metallic effort.
Rufus Wainwright Milwaukee at Last!!! Decca Records
Rufus should do all of his records as live albums.
Live albums can be incredibly boring affairs that often sound just like the studio recording with canned crowd noise. Thankfully, Mr. Wainwright and Milwaukee weren’t having that.
Wainwright’s grand pop ambitions really pop in the live arena, especially on songs like “Sanssouci” and “Release the Stars,” in which the diverse instrumentation achieves added prominence. Now, if you aren’t a fan of Wainwright’s most recent effort, “Release the Stars,” you might be a little disappointed, as seven of the 11 songs on this effort come from that album. Fans might also think the out troubadour is being a little stingy, considering the CD is less than half as long as the concert it was culled from. Seek out the DVD of the same name if you want the whole shebang.
If you haven’t seen Wainwright live, “Milwaukee at Last!!!” will make you sorry you haven’t.