December 2004

I have a batch of brand new CD’s on my desk, some by established artists - you could call them veterans, and some by new up-and-coming artists. What I find most interesting is that the new CD’s by the veterans are so much more appealing. I’m not knocking Trick Daddy, Nelly, Destiny’s Child (who I really like) and Britney (who I really…let’s just say she cancels out the Destiny’s Child vote). But for the most part, new CD’s from Michael McDonald, Elton John, a reissued release and unreleased acoustic recordings by the late John Lennon, and the soundtrack to Ray are all so good that I couldn’t let this opportunity pass without informing you, the consumer. After all, it’s my job to keep you abreast of the best music out there, so there was really no question why I chose these discs over the others. Call me old fashioned, but I know my music, and believe me, the following reviewed choices are the real deal.

Michael McDonald: Motown Two
Motown Records
Release Date: October 26, 2004

Like so many unoriginal ideas, whether it is Hollywood, or the recording industry, sequels seem to be all the rage. But don’t knock all sequels - some work better than others. This is the case with Michael McDonald’s follow-up to last year’s Grammy nominated CD Motown. His latest ode to the great Motown era of the 60’s and 70’s is appropriately titled Motown Two. No points for title originality, but kudos to the wonderful music and success of doing these great songs justice. There are so many wonderful Motown hit songs, the hardest part for McDonald must have been narrowing the choice to fourteen tracks. Much of the CD belongs to Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder’s catalogue, such as Gaye’s powerful protest songs “What’s Goin’ On” and “Mercy Mercy Me.” His lighter fare includes “You’re All I Need To Get By.” As for Wonder, McDonald covers the brilliant “Tuesday Heartbreak,” and the classic “I Was Made To Love Her” with Wonder on harmonica. A stamp of approval doesn’t get much better than that. Another highlight includes a gorgeous duet with Toni Braxton and her smokin’ vocals on “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart).” Do not despair, there are also the Holland-Dozier-Holland staples such as “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” and “Nowhere To Run,” which no Motown tribute would be complete without. If you have a hankering for some of the great pop and R&B songs of an era gone by, I sincerely believe you will love McDonald’s blue-eyed soul renditions of these treasured gems.

Ray: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Warner Music Group
Release Date: October 19, 2004

Recently, I reviewed the last recording of Ray Charles’ brilliant career, Genius Loves Company, and though I loved some of the cuts, I wasn’t completely enthralled with the entire CD. I recall saying “Wait for the soundtrack to Ray, which is sure to be the soundtrack to Charles’ life.” I’m happy to say my prediction was quite accurate. How could it not be? We are talking absolute masterpieces from Charles’ vast and wonderful catalogue. While I was always aware that Ray Charles delved into many genres of music, including Blues, Gospel and Country, I didn’t fully realize the impact Ray Charles had until I saw the film and witnessed actor Jamie Foxx transform himself into this legend. If this film doesn’t make you run out and buy this soundtrack, you need a hearing test. The songs included on this set are “What’d I Say,” “Hit The Road Jack,” “Unchain My Heart,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Born To Lose,” and the two songs that tugged at my heartstrings, “You Don’t Know Me” and his signature song “Georgia On My Mind.” There are ten other cuts that absolutely run the gamut of emotions, from Charles’ early adulthood until his later years. Please, I implore you not only to see this wonderful film, but pick up the soundtrack as well - it’s absolutely stunning.

John Lennon: Acoustic/John Lennon: Rock ‘N’ Roll
Capitol Records
Both Releases: November 2, 2004

There are legends, and then there are legends, John Lennon falls into the latter. He was murdered twenty-four years ago at the age of forty. Forty years old is too young, but especially so when it takes one of the most gifted musicians this world has ever known. It’s funny, or not so funny, while I was discussing this pair of CD’s with a colleague, I was not only reminded of the depth of Lennon’s soul, which he fully utilized at all times, but I was also sadly reminded of how the world was cheated out of so much more that this man could have brought to us in the ensuing years. Lennon was a man of peace. How ironic in the times we live in today, that the songs on his Acoustic set are such reminders of his goodwill. All the tracks are taken from demos or live performances and stripped down to their barest soul. Every Lennon fan has songs that mean the most to them, so I wouldn’t dare try to tell you the finest songs on the set. I can only tell you that “Working Class Hero,” “Love,” “God,” “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World,” “Dear Yoko,” and the song of peace and love that is Lennon’s solo signature - a live unreleased version of “Imagine” - moved me the most. There are sixteen tracks in all, and Lennon fans know their favorites. Since this is such a “rough cut” of Lennon’s legacy, I recommend this album would best be served by serious collectors only.

Rock ‘N’ Roll is an album that Lennon released in 1975. Although it was his last studio recording before taking a five-year hiatus to help raise his son, Sean (born in ’75), it was a fitting tribute to the rock and rollers that were idols of Lennon’s teen years, as well as songs that shaped him as a musician. There are four bonus tracks that fans haven’t heard before; “Angel Baby,” “To Know Her Is To Love Her,” “Since My Baby Left Me,” and a reprise of the album’s original last track, “Just Because.” I find it interesting that this album was panned in 1975, and is being praised in 2004. Is it because we see the world differently than we did thirty years ago - or is it because we now realize Lennon’s message of peace, whether it be letting loose on “Bony Moronie” or delving deep into his gorgeous version of “Stand By Me,” resonates so much more post 9-11? Either way, viewing life through Lennon’s rose-colored glasses seems so much clearer now.

Elton John: Peachtree Road
Universal Records
Released: November 9, 2004

I became a fan of Elton John’s the moment I heard his first hit single, “Your Song,” being played on the radio in late 1970. What followed in the next couple of years were albums such as Madman Across the Water and Honky Chateau. Elton was a young and brilliant composer who, with the aid of an equally phenomenal lyricist named Bernie Taupin, made pop albums of great importance. In 2001, John and Taupin reunited with the album Songs from The West Coast, which was filled with the similar stripped down sound, great music and wonderful lyrics that made the duo a magnificent team to begin with. Peachtree Road picks up where Songs of the West Coast left off. In my mind, and ears, this album surpasses it. Peachtree Road (Elton’s U.S. Atlanta residence) begins with “Weight of the World,” where an older, wiser Elton, at 57, seems to finally be comfortable in his own skin. He embraces aging (although his voice remains as clear as it was thirty years ago) and seems to be living his life without the burdens that once lay so heavily on his shoulders and mind. “Answer In The Sky” has a wonderful hook, and at times is reminiscent of the melody of “Philadelphia Freedom.” I suppose this CD is an homage to himself, where songs such as the autobiographical “My Elusive Drug,” “Turn The Lights Out When You Leave,” the romp fest of “They Call Her A Cat,” and “All That I’m Allowed” always reminded me of the brilliance of all of Elton’s wonderful 70’s music. If you’re a fan of Elton’s, especially “early Elton,” this album will not disappoint you. The bitch’s music may be a bit more subdued than his platform shoes of the past, but considering his public persona of late, he’s still a bitch! But let’s not confuse that with his musical prowess.

© 2004 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.