CD REVIEWS – Fall/Winter 2007

Ann Wilson: Hope & Glory
Zoe Records
Release Date: September 11, 2007

By the title, you’d think this was Ann Wilson’s debut album as a solo artist, sans sister Nancy, her Heart mate for many decades. And in a way, it is. But don’t be fooled. Out of the dozen tracks, Ann not only teams with Nancy on two tracks (the country bluesy “Darkness, Darkness” and “Goodbye Blue Sky”) but Nancy’s also present on a superb rendition of the Vietnam era anthem “Get Together,” alongside Deana Carter and Wynonna Judd. This album includes nine collaborations that feature some of the finest pop/rock and country/folk singers of the present day.

The fabulous talent of Wynonna Judd is beautiful music to our ears on the 1965 Animals’ rock and roll hit “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” with both women complementing each other with their similarities in vocal power, as well as spotless delivery. Who knew Ann was such a country maven? Other “country” entries include a shimmering set with k.d. lang on Lucinda Williams’ “Jackson,” where both women harmonize sweetly off the other, and kick-ass country gal Gretchen Wilson teams with Ann on a fierce delivery of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.” In the mix, we’re also treated to a collaboration between Ms. Wilson, Rufus Wainwright and Shawn Colvin on a moody yet effective delivery of Bob Dylan’s early opus “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” as well as a duet with the vocally stunning Allison Krauss on the Neil Young classic “War Of Man.” Another naturally satisfying collaboration is between Ann and Sir Elton John on one of his earliest songs, “Where To Now St. Peter?” The three solo songs are equally effective, as Ann takes on Led Zeppelin’s masterpiece “The Immigrant Song,” proving she can still rock equally as well as she can croon.

Producer Ben Mink (best known for his collaborative efforts with k.d. lang) brings out the very best in Ann and her distinguished guests for one of the most satisfying albums I’ve heard this year. Ann may be singing of “Hope & Glory” but “pride” is a word that could’ve easily fit into the title as well. Brava!

Bob Dylan: Dylan (Collectors Edition)
Sony Music
Release Date: October 2, 2007

There are two versions of this set, so please pay attention! The first offering is a pleasant 18-track single disc overview of Dylan through the decades. Considering he’s been a part of the musical landscape since 1963, how much could you possibly receive with just eighteen tracks? I implore you to purchase the three-disc 51-track “Collectors Edition.” It spans his 45-year recording career, as well as offering just about everything that is essential to Dylan’s myriad of songs through the years. The entire set is in chronological order, beginning in ’63 with “Song To Woody,” a tribute to Dylan’s hero, Woody Guthrie. From there it offers up everything from well-known anthems such as “Blowin’ In The Wind” to lesser known, but equally valuable material, such as “Masters of War,” “Maggie’s Farm” and “Positively 4th Street,” and those are just the hidden gems on CD one. Of course, there are “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Just Like A Woman” to round out the first disc to satisfy all Dylan-philes. Disc two picks up in 1969 with his radio hit “Lay Lady Lay,” and takes us through the 70’s with the eerily significant “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” the gorgeous anthem “Tangled Up In Blue” and the biographical epic “Hurricane.” In between, we are treated to the country polish of “If Not For You” (best known to pop listeners as an early hit for Olivia Newton-John), “Forever Young,” which is forever identified with Rod Stewart’s pop anthem, and the introspective “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Disc three takes us through the 80’s, 90’s and into the present with fine selections such as “Brownsville Girl,” “Ring Them Bells,” Blood In My Eyes” and his most recent recordings “Someday Baby” and “When The Deal Goes Down.” With Dylan, there’s not a bad track on the entire set, just as there’s nary a bad track in his entire discography. This is the most complete and satisfying anthology of one of the most important and influential singer/songwriters of the late 20th century.

Debbie Harry: Necessary Evil
Eleven Seven Music
Release Date: October 9, 2007

Debbie Harry has been on the musical map for nearly four decades, and surprisingly, this is only her fifth solo album, and her first since 1993’s “Debravation.” The old adage applies – good things come to those who wait, as Necessary Evil is her strongest solo effort to date.

Already a hit on the dancefloor, “Two Times Blue” carries Harry’s unmistakable vocal and her flawless ability to resonate with club-goers. If radio programmers had any sense, they’d see and hear that this 62 year-old original holds much more value to a song than most twenty-somethings out there, with their lack of melody and repetitive vapid lyrics. Harry delivers more excitement in one song than most pop stars today can muster up on an entire album.

The title track (with its rappers’ delightful delivery reminiscent of Harry’s opulent 1981 “Rapture”) plus several other beauties, including “You’re Too Hot,” the sensational “Whiteout,” and “School For Scandal,” is a throwback and lovely reminder of Deb’s “new wave” CBGB’s repertoire of the seventies. “Needless To Say” is a mid-tempo ballad that ranks as one of Harry’s best in her vast catalogue, with and without Blondie. “Paradise” is a sax-laden smooth ballad that closes out the seventeen-track set in style.

It may be fourteen years since Debbie Harry’s been on her own, but with Necessary Evil she proves you really can go home again. And like a fine wine, she just gets better with age.

Jennifer Lopez: Brave
Epic Records
Release Date: October 9, 2007

“Brave” might be a bit strong of a title considering Lopez never really dances out of her comfort zone, but to mainstream fans this is a warm welcome back to the genre of music that put Jenny on the map, beginning with her debut album On The 6, just eight years ago.

The album kicks off with “Stay Together,” a feisty and ferocious dance ditty that seems a bit ironic after three (or is it four?) marriages. Nevertheless, after her recent and pleasant all-out Spanish release “Como Ana Una Mujer,” just a few short months ago, Jenny from the block returns with a radio and club friendly disc that is simply delightful.

A major “Brave” highlight is “Hold It Don’t Drop It,” which samples Tavares’ biggest hit record from 1975, “It Only Takes A Minute,” that backs up Jen’s own contagious hook. “Hold It,” as well as several other tracks on this disc, is textured with many disco and R&B hooks that made the music of that era, as well as this album, so infectious. Other strong tracks include the first single, “Do It Well,” that’s already a darling on the dancefloor, as well as the dance charts. Add “Gotta Be There” and the title track, along with a handful of other dance tracks and a couple of soulful ballad entries, and you have an album that will leave J.Lo fans on a high C note.

Eric Clapton: Complete Clapton
Reprise/WEA Records
Release Date: October 9, 2007

The title of this two-disc thirty-six-track set is a bit misleading. Complete Clapton? I suppose if you count his “hit” records with Cream, Blind Faith, Derek & the Dominos, as well as a plethora of his solo tracks, it could be considered complete. But I prefer to refer to this as Clapton’s Greatest Hits. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty here to satisfy the casual fan, most especially the fan that just knows Clapton’s music solely from radio airplay. But if you’re going to call it “Complete,” I would think that from the thirty-plus solo albums and the smattering of albums from the previous aforementioned groups that Clapton commanded, you’d expect much more from old Slowhand. This is still a great set, and one that boasts many favorites, beginning in 1966 to the present. The second disc gets a bit heavy-handed on his latter-day material post “Unplugged,” with half of it devoted to post 1994, but it’s also necessary if Reprise needs to touch on all aspects of Clapton’s career. And that’s just what this collection accomplishes – it “touches” on all aspects but never goes in-depth. If you’re looking for a collection of highlights and hits, this one’s for you. If you’re looking for a complete anthology, there’s 1988’s “Crossroads,” but that would still omit the past two decades. I suggest you wait, there’s bound to be a “complete” collection within the next couple of years. Until then, enjoy the highlights.

Luther Vandross: Love, Luther
Sony Legacy
Release Date: October 16, 2007

The loveliness of Luther Vandross’ exquisite vocals left us far too early two years ago. It was just a matter of time until someone put together a retrospective of his timeless work, and Sony/Legacy records outdid themselves with this four-disc collection of fifty-six songs that made Vandross one of the finest vocalists in the history of R&B/Pop music. This collection even covers his first recordings dating back to 1973, a duet with Delores Hall entitled “Who’s Gonna Make It Easier For Me” and his 1976 recording of “Funky Music (Is A Part Of Me).” It also has three previously unreleased demos, including “Ready For Love” and “If You Can’t Dance.” This collection doesn’t skimp on the tiniest detail, so even die-hards of Vandross will be enthralled by the inclusion of recordings from his 1980 debut single to his record-breaking 1981 debut album Never Too Much, which includes the title track plus other highlights such as “A House Is Not A Home,” Bad Boy/Having A Party” and “Don’t You Know That?” On the four discs we are treated to the cream of the crop from Luther’s fourteen albums. Duets are also a-plenty, which highlight his historic recordings with Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Frank Sinatra and Dionne Warwick, among many others. There are three other unreleased recordings from Vandross’ 1986 “The Montserrat Sessions,” as well as a bevy of #1’s and most beloved performances that capture Luther’s three-decade career. This is truly one of the most superb collections of one artist’s career that I have ever encountered. Treat yourself or some lucky person to this box set. This is one package that’ll put a smile on anyone’s face who appreciates the unsurpassed talents of the late, great Luther Vandross.

Across The Universe (Special Edition): Music From The Motion Picture
Release Date: October 23, 2007

Whether you saw the film and enjoyed it or not, there’s no escaping the fabulous reinterpretations of some of the finest rock and pop songs ever written. Lennon and McCartney, along with some George Harrison and a Ringo Starr symphony, have been shipped into the new millennium with masterful results. Of course, being a Beatles fan doesn’t hurt. But even if you’re not a fanatical friend of the fab four, there’s no denying the beauty of such diverse songs as the psychedelic “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the simplistic beauty of “Blackbird,” the lover’s lament “Something,” the song of hope and faith “Let It Be” and the legendary “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” These are among 31 classics, all performed with love and respect by the likes of Bono, Jim Sturgess, actress Evan Rachel Wood, the shattering intensity of Dana Fuchs, Joe Cocker, Joe Anderson,  Martin Luther McCoy, Secret Machines, Carol Woods & Timothy T. Mitchum, Eddie Izzard and on to the songbird T.V. Carpio, who sounds like a blissful combination of Dolly Parton & Emmylou Harris. Please, please me and yourself by picking up the deluxe edition that carries all 31 tracks. The single edition is just fine with sixteen tracks, but for the real bang in your Beatles’ buck, the special edition will absolutely transport you “Across The Universe.” Yes, the musical is definitely back, and what better way to celebrate than with the greatest and most successful songwriters of all time.

Guy B: Within Me
Guy B
Re-Release Date: October 23, 2007

If your friends aren’t already aware of the new openly gay artist Guy B, just tell them to tune into LOGO to see his debut video “Within Me.” If you’re an avid viewer of the all-gay cable channel, chances are you’ve seen the video, considering it’s been in the Top 10 for the past three-and-a-half months. The body on this guy isn’t the only thing that’s smokin’ hot, he has a voice to match that physique. Guy is as easily at home with a dance tune as he is with a tender and romantic ballad such as “Wandering Eyes,” and the sensational closer “Match For My Wing.” This man has a God-given powerhouse vocal and knows exactly how to wrap the beauty and tenderness around one of his self-penned sonatas as easily as he can steer you straight to the dancefloor. The first single, “Within Me,” has an alternate dance version available, remixed by legendary DJ Manny Lehman. The next single, “So What,” sizzles with an all-out hip hop dance anthem treatment, mixed by DJ Scotty K. Guy, that will be a treat for your eyes and ears when he travels the gay circuit performing at Pride events around the country next year. When asked if he feels being out has hindered his career, he answers, “Being out has fulfilled me like nothing else. I’m proud that I set out to be as honest as I can as an artist.” I suggest you familiarize yourself with this sensational new CD. If not, you’ll want to after seeing him perform on TV, or better yet, up close. Trust me on this one, this Guy’s in love with his music, and you will be too after listening to this gorgeous man’s riffs and splendiferous vocals.

Eagles: Long Road Out Of Eden
ERC Records
Release Date: October 30, 2007

It may be 28 years since the Eagles released their last studio recording, but to hear them on this new disc, it sounds as if it could’ve been just 28 months. Vocal decline? Not evident here, on what has to be one of the finest records of the year, if not the millennium. Perfectionism has always been Don Henley’s middle name (who co-wrote ten of the twenty sterling tracks) and his trademark vocals are still as supple as they were more than 35 years ago. This is not to suggest that the other members of the band, Timothy B. Schmit, Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh, don’t sound and play as great as Henley – they do, and they do it remarkably well. The two-disc set kicks off with the poetic a cappella “No More Walks In The Wood,” and their trademark harmonies bring you right back into the 70’s, which is a great thing, considering that was the decade that gave us all six of their studio albums. The California country sound is as comfortable as it was all those years ago.

The first single, “How Long,” has already been making waves all over VH-1 and the Billboard Country Singles charts, as it continues to gain momentum and open the door for several of the other nineteen tracks primed and ready for radio. Produced by the Eagles with four co-producers, Steuart Smith, Richard F.W. Davis, Scott Crago and Bill Szymczyk, the boys recorded all of the tracks in Los Angeles, with an exception of two in Dallas. The environment had to have helped, as the band sold more than 700,000 copies in their first week on the market, to land them at Number 1. The figures are more than 400,000 units more than their closest competitor, Britney Spears. That’s the second highest number of sales this year (next to Kanye West) and just goes to show you that you don’t have to be 25 years old to sell records. You just need what the Eagles have always had – pure genius songwriting and spectacular vocals that have always resonated with the audience. This album stands proudly next to their greatest achievements; 1976’s tour de force “Hotel California,” and their last studio release, the stunning 1979 “The Long Run.” “Long Road Out Of Eden” isn’t just important, mark my words – these Eagles soar to the highest of heights with a record that’ll stand up with the greatest classic rock albums of all time.

Seal: System
Warner Bros. Records
Release Date: November 13, 2007

Seal returns with his fifth studio album, and joyfully returns to the type of music he made on his first couple of albums. His latest CD, System, with its techno synth beats, stunning melodies and layered vocal tracks, is a return to the style and sound that put him on the musical map and made him a household name, not to mention a dancefloor darling almost two decades ago. This time around, Seal teams up with producer Stuart Price (who was responsible for the same duties on Madonna’s last smash, Confessions on a Dancefloor). If you liked the results on Lady M’s electronic rush, you’ll love this latest entry from Seal, which could’ve easily been Madonna’s bookend to “Confessions.”  Speaking of confessing, Seal reveals, “My first album was upbeat music you could dance to. System is a return to my roots.” The album kicks off with “If It’s In My Mind, It’s On My Face,” which is a sparkling, feel-good synth-heavy song that sets the pace for the entire album. The first single, “Amazing” (which is rapidly climbing the dance charts), is British house at its finest and seamlessly picks up where the first track left off. There’s even a duet, “Wedding Day,” with his wife, supermodel Heidi Klum, that carries a stunning and subtle synth beat over the lovely melody that Seal wrote for their actual wedding day two years ago. Even the bride’s vocals are pleasantly capable of complementing her groom’s unique baritone. The eleven-track set is filled with love and devotion to this genre of music. What better way to feel for the holidays and for all time? If you’re a fan of Seal and/or this musical genre, System is a delightful addition to your collection, or for the person lucky enough to receive this gift.

Celine Dion: Taking Chances
Release Date: November 13, 2007

Celine Dion did something that very few people have been able to do – she just beat the odds in Vegas for a successful run that beat all records. And speaking of records, her latest is entitled Taking Chances, and the sixteen-track opus lives up to its title. Even non die-hards of Dion’s are taking notice of the chances she has taken and changes she has made for this latest CD. The title track, possibly one of her finest, is a mid-tempo power ballad that Dion does not over indulge. Over the years she’s been accused of over-singing, but that’s not the case here. As a matter of fact, she (with her multiple producers that include John Shanks, Ben Moody and Linda Perry) seems to understate most of the songs and bring poignancy to most of the tracks, where in the past she may have been pouncing her fist off her chest in her signature way of delivering even the simplest of tunes. Of course, with sixteen tunes (seventeen, if you include the iTunes “Bonus Edition”) not every single song is stellar, but they’re as close to perfect as one could get with two fistfuls of new material. The one song that will be familiar to pop/rock music lovers is “Alone,” which was Heart’s most successful song twenty years ago. Dion doesn’t do much to change the original arrangement, bet hey, if it ain’t broke…. Many people wonder why artists cover other artists’ successes, but this is a practice that goes back to the beginning of musical time. She’s just exposing a new audience to a great song that may have been too young to know when it was a hit. In fact, if you check, you’ll most likely find that just about all popular recording artists cover each other’s songs. Certain artists even admire their own material so much, they re-record it at a later time.

The standouts on this album seem to be the bulk of material that Moody and Perry have produced, and that includes Perry’s “My Love” and the Gospel-tinged “New Dawn.” Moody’s “This Time” is a knockout. Dion even sets out to record a Janis Joplin-esque number, “That’s Just The Woman In Me,” which I admit is a bold attempt, but feels a bit forced when she takes her chances with the bluesy roughness of Joplin’s signature sound. For the most part, this is one of Dion’s best albums in a decade. If you like Celine Dion, you’ll love the album. If you’re not a consistent fan, or perhaps not a fan at all, take your chance on Taking Chances. You, or the person that receives this gift, might be pleasantly surprised.

Ultimate Grammy Collection: Contemporary Pop
Shout Factory
Release Date: November 27, 2007

NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Science) is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Grammy Awards in style. The festivities began in late November with a CBS television special devoted to the twenty-five greatest Grammy performances of all time, which included spine-tingling moments from Melissa Etheridge’s 2005 tribute to Janis Joplin to Aretha Franklin’s last minute presentation of “Nessun Dorma,” filling in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti. In addition to this coming February’s broadcast of the 50th annual Grammy Awards, Shout Factory is issuing several compilation CD’s dedicated to the high-profile past winners. This collection (entitled “contemporary”) focuses in on sixteen performers and tracks from the 90’s and 00’s that have gone on to have a special place in the hearts and minds of the performers, as well as us, the audience.

The CD kicks off with k.d. lang’s most accessible pop record of her career, “Constant Craving” from 1992, and the CD works its way down the list as a who’s who of the recording industry, including Seal’s sensational opus “Kiss From A Rose,” Annie Lennox’s heartfelt rendition of “No More ‘I Love You’s’,” Eric Clapton’s blue-eyed soul of “Change The World,” Sarah McLachlan’s “Building A Mystery” and Madonna’s out ‘n out 1998 tour de force, “Ray Of Light.”

The other carefully chosen ten tracks belong to Shawn Colvin with “Sunny Come Home,” Jamiroquai’s spectacular journey through “Virtual Insanity,” Brian Setzer and his orchestra made us “Jump, Jive an’ Wail,” while 2000’s newcomer Macy Gray introduced us to her signature song “I Try,” and Nelly Furtado’s brilliant debut record “I’m Like A Bird” flew in from the heavens. Closing out the set was Norah Jones’ track “Don’t Know Why” from her eight-times platinum debut. Justin Timberlake showed off his solo chops on “Cry Me A River,” Los Lonely Boys gave us “Heaven,” Kelly Clarkson proved she could rock with the best of them on “Since U Been Gone” while newcomer John Mayer closed out the record with his sense of “Gravity.”

Ultimate Grammy Collection: Contemporary R&B
Shout Factory
November 27, 2007

This Grammy collection takes us back a couple of years shy of the 90’s with a few tracks from the mid to late 80’s, but the bulk of material still focuses in on much of the 90’s and 00’s. To give us a little taste of nostalgia, the opener offers up one of the finest female vocalists to emerge from the mid-80’s, and that is Anita Baker with her superb record “Giving You The Best That I Got” from her sophomore album of the same name. Taking us down memory lane from the same timeframe is Terence Trent D’Arby (remember him?) with his track “Wishing Well” from his spectacular 1987 debut, Introducing The Hardline.” Another act gone by the wayside is Soul II Soul, with their fabulous record “Back To Life,” and the man with the voice as smooth as silk, Luther Vandross, offers up his dramatic reading of “Here And Now.” The incomparable Ray Charles gave us “A Song For You,” while Sade’s incandescent vocals made us quite aware that “No Ordinary Love” was no ordinary Top 40 single.

Before all of the drama, heartbreak and bankruptcy that was so scandalous, Toni Braxton made us feel just fine when she sang her remedy “Breathe Again” from her seven times platinum debut record. Another blast from the past, but well-deserved part of this compilation, is Blackstreet with their infectious recording of “No Diggity.” R. Kelly wrote and performed one of the most uplifting and beloved songs of the 90’s, “I Believe I Can Fly,” as Brandy & Monica offered up the record-breaking (at the time) #1 single “The Boy Is Mine.” Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez left us way too soon, but her legacy lives on in one of TLC’s most infectious tracks, “No Scrubs.” Comin’ round the bend to close out the set is Whitney Houston’s sparkling vocals on her heaviest R&B material to date, “It’s Not Right But It’s OK,” D’Angelo’s abs made the girls and boys swoon as he delivered “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” Usher ushered in his signature “U Remind Me,” while the queen of the crop, Beyonce, closes out the compilation with 2004’s “Crazy In Love” featuring her longtime love, Jay-Z.

If there were ever two collections to remind us how valuable the contemporary Pop and R&B fields are concerning the Grammy Awards from the past two decades, it’s this duo of luminous selections.

Mary J. Blige: Growing Pains
Geffen Records
Release Date: December 18, 2007

With her eighth studio album in a decade and a half under her belt, Mary J’s Growing Pains is most definitely the R&B superstar’s most polished work to date. It doesn’t hurt that she has help from some of the most sought after producers in the business, including The Neptunes, Jazze Pha, Johnta Austin, Neyo, Stargate, Bryan-Michael Cox, Dre and Vidal, Tricky, Dream, and Sean Garrett. Aside from that star billing, sharing the microphone on tracks “Grown Woman” and “Shake Down” are present-day shining stars, Ludacris and Usher, respectively.

I'm pleasantly surprised at how very ballad-heavy this collection is, including the phenomenal "If You Love Me," as well as the title track “Work In Progress (Growing Pains).” The finest up-tempo tracks include "Til' The Morning," "Smoke," the first single "Just Fine," and the current single blazing its way up the charts and into our hearts, "Work That."

Don’t miss the iTunes version with the bonus tracks, especially "Mirror" Featuring Eve and "Nowhere Fast." The remake of the Todd Rundgren staple "Hello It's Me" is also a great take and a reminder of how a song is timeless, whether it’s recorded as a pop/rock song in 1973 or an R&B sensation a quarter century later.

Mary J. Blige comes alive, and if this is just “Growing Pains,” I can’t even imagine what to expect when she’s no longer a “work in progress.” Sensational!

Footnote: Had I not written my favorite albums of 2007 for last issue’s press time, Mary J. Blige’s ‘Growing Pains’ would’ve easily made the list.

Olivia Newton-John: Olivia’s Live Hits
EMI Records/ONJ Productions
Release Date: January 15, 2008

In a career that spans four decades, this is Olivia Newton-John’s first-ever live recording. Hard to believe that the shy Aussie girl that started out as a sweet country sensation with her first hit, the Bob Dylan-penned “If Not For You” (which is included in this set), went to the sexual blonde bombshell and best-selling female singer of the 1970’s, as well as co-starring in the most successful movie musical of all time (Grease). By the time she ended her first decade of recording, she had amassed over a half-dozen #1 singles, included in her unstoppable knack for landing over three dozen Top 40 hits. The result on this greatest hits live collection with the Sydney Symphony is just a small sample of what this woman has accomplished in such a short span of time.

Unlike many singers that emerged from the 60’s and 70’s, Newton-John is a survivor, and her legion of fans are more than happy to tell you of her unprecedented string of hits that parallel her longevity as one of the greatest recording stars to emerge from the late twentieth century.

Other #1’s on this collection include “Have You Never Been Mellow,” a samba-styled recording of her biggest hit “Physical,” which Olivia refers to as “age appropriate,” a double dose of songs from Grease, including the heartbreaking “Hopelessly Devoted To You” and the fabulous feel-good anthem “You’re The One That I Want.” Also offered is a trio of songs from the Xanadu soundtrack; “Magic” (which is updated with a sensational sax solo), the beautiful love song “Suddenly” and a flawless replication of the title song synthesized to the max! Also included is the country crossover hit “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and the closer, her signature song and first global smash, the Peter Allen-penned love song of 1974, “I Honestly Love You.”

If you weren’t sure that this is a brand new recording, listening to Newton-John’s crystalline vocals, one would be hard-pressed to pinpoint which decade this album was actually from. Her vocals haven’t changed a bit, which makes this collection a treasure to behold.

For the very best experience, I suggest picking up the DVD companion to this record. Not only will you be blown away by the vocals, but this woman has held onto her beautiful youthful appearance. The most important aspect to the DVD is the addition of seventeen songs that include “Let Me Be There,” the Dolly Parton staple “Jolene,” “If You Love Me, Let Me Know,” and a trio of up-tempo dance songs; “Heart Attack,” “Make A Move On Me,” and the sensational Top 5 hit “Twist Of Fate.” Also included is a virtual duet with her dear departed friend Peter Allen on “Tenterfield Saddler.”

The songs, the symphony, the heart and soul, as well as the sound production, make this concert a standout and a must-have for your collection. Her fans honestly love her, and you will too after viewing this spectacular two-hour event.

Shelby Lynne: Just A Little Lovin’
Lost Highway Records
Release Date: January 29, 2008

From the CD cover art right down to the soft, sensual vocals, country chanteuse Shelby Lynne delivers an album of jazz that was “inspired by Dusty Springfield.” Not only does Lynne sing nine out of ten tracks that Springfield recorded in her 60’s heyday, she doesn’t replicate Dusty, nor does she even replicate herself. If you’re wondering what all that means, it’s just that Shelby Lynne didn’t want to cover the songs note for note, and didn’t want to sound as if she was mimicking the late, great pop star or draw from her own country roots. What she attempted, and marvelously achieved, was an awe-inspiring album that brings the songs down a notch from their out ‘n out brassy deliveries, and put a soft jazz inflection into each track. The best way to describe this album is by saying that Shelby Lynne took the minimalist approach, and recorded each and every track with only a bass guitar, keyboards, and drum.

The CD kicks off with the title track, which is indicative of what’s to come on the entire ten-track set. All of the songs are treated with kid gloves, and even the one original written by Lynne, “Pretend,” is a song of praise to Springfield. It fits into the set so seamlessly, it’s as if Dusty had recorded it herself. Lynne admits to first “discovering” Springfield from Springfield’s iconic opus Dusty In Memphis, which is probably why we’re treated to three songs from that 1969 landmark album; the aforementioned title track, “Breakfast In Bed” and a superb rendition of the Randy Newman-penned “I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore,” which Shelby admits “is one of the great story songs” and one that “absolutely kills” her. One of the songs that personally killed me was one of Dusty’s best-known torch songs and biggest hit, “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.” I’ve heard this song performed by many singers from Elvis to Cher, and it was always orchestrated in the grand way it was written, but I have to give props to Ms. Lynne and legendary producer Phil Ramone (Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin) for delivering this song in a way I never would’ve thought it would work – just a twenty-six second a cappella introduction “When I said I needed you/You said you would always stay/It wasn’t me that changed but you/And now you’ve gone away…” until the gentleness of the steel brush strums the drum, a simple keyboard plays and the bass begins. The intro alone was spine tingling, and the entire track is one huge highlight amongst highlights. Other familiar radio tracks made famous by Springfield include the Bacharach/David gems “Anyone Who Had A Heart” and a brilliant and moving rendition of one of their finest, “The Look Of Love,” as well as the song that gave Dusty her first hit back in 1964, the Mann/Weil single “I Only Want To Be With You,” toned down from the frenzied beat that was so popular back then to a quieter re-examination of the song that allows the poignancy of the lyrics to shine.

This is a remarkable album that’s filled with love and inspiration for the singer that will live on in her recordings for eternity, as well as the highs and lows that filled her tumultuous life that ended much too soon in 1999. This CD couldn’t get any better…let me refrain, it could, if Shelby Lynne decides to go back into the studio and pay homage to her musical hero with a second volume. Until then, we have this CD to remind us of Dusty Springfield’s legacy and Shelby Lynne’s extraordinary talent.

Just a side note: It was Shelby Lynne’s good friend, Barry Manilow, who suggested the idea for her to record this album. He may not have written these songs, but he certainly has the ear for them. Kudos to all involved!

The Puppini Sisters: The Rise And Fall Of Ruby Woo
Verve Records
Release Date: February 12, 2008

This trio (Marcella Puppini, Kate Mullins and Stephanie O’Brien) that conquered the U.K. charts in 2006 and then the U.S. jazz charts in 2007, has returned with their sophomore album and trademark three-part harmonies with an album that does what few second albums do to distinguish it from their debut’s – they surpassed it. The Rise And Fall Of Ruby Woo is a twelve-track set filled with seven identifiable songs and five originals, each written solo by the three girls themselves. The 40’s “Andrew Sisters” sound is still intact and has even blossomed into a more mature and slicker production than that of their first album, Betcha Bottom Dollar. If you liked their debut, this follow-up will knock your bobby socks off! The most identifiable songs that this trio takes on include the kick-off single, the Classics IV 1968 hit “Spooky,” followed by the biggest single for The Bangles back in the mid-80’s, “Walk Like An Egyptian,” complete with yodels! The Patti Page standard, “Old Cape Cod,” is nearly as indelible, the way the original captured this country’s heart back in 1957. Barry Manilow’s opus “Could It Be Magic,” sung in a slowed down and downtrodden interpretation, captures the sentimentality as fine as Manilow did himself over three decades ago. After reading the set list, the one song I was most curious about was Beyoncé’s mega-smash from 2004, “Crazy In Love.” I got to tell you, these girls pulled it off, and gave this song a whole new meaning. Not to take away from the original (which I adore) but it was pure FUN listening to this R&B hit done in a jazz three-part harmony delivery. The only reason the five original songs stood out from the rest is because they weren’t identifiable, but they fit into this CD as if they were written and recorded in the 30, 40’s 50’s or any decade’s style that these girls have proven to be able to pull off with such confidence and ease. The original tracks written specifically for the CD are “Soho Nights” by Stephanie O’Brien, a hat trick of songs, “I Can’t Believe I’m Not A Millionaire,” “Jilted” and “And She Sang,” written by Marcella Puppini, and “It’s Not Over” by Kate Mullins. To be honest, my favorite of the originals is “Millionaire” because it sounds as if it was taken straight out of an MGM musical of the 40’s. Another great take is Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” sounding as if it could’ve been recorded with Sir Duke accompanying the girls himself. And it’s true, with the “swing” The Puppini Sisters provide, this album has that “thing” that makes it truly sensational.

© 2008 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.