Red Hot Chili Peppers: Stadium Arcadium
After reading lead vocalist Anthony Kiedis’ book, Scar Tissue, a couple of years ago, I never thought I’d hear another note come out of the collective musical genius of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That’s not the only thing that surprises me about their new two-disc, 28-set collection, Stadium Arcadium. The other surprise is that it’s the most solid recording since their brilliant breakthrough third album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik from 1991. That hardly discounts their other efforts, most notably the sensational 1999 album, Californication, but I stand by my ears and say this is their best full recording to date. They have done what most bands do after being together for over two decades, they know how to play to each other’s strengths, all the while being completely in-tune with each other. Reaching this plateau was no easy effort, but after hearing the opening track from disc 1,“Dani California,” I was more than hopeful. My hopes and dreams kept escalating with each passing track. One seemed to be more interesting and exciting than the next. The secret to this band’s new music is that they haven’t abandoned their signature sound, it’s just been refreshed to keep with the times. Kiedis’ vocals are superb and John Frusciante’s brilliant guitar solos are present on just about every track. Flea’s dazzling bass along with Chad Smith’s masterful fingers holding his magical drumsticks rounds out this quintessential quartet’s remarkable set. There are no lowlights on this two-hour journey, only highlights, including “Tell Me Baby,” “Make You Feel Better,” which has a nostalgic appeal that’s hard to resist and arrives halfway through disc 2, along with the infectious “Hey,” and stunning ballad “If.” It’s all here. Rock at its hardest, many must-hear mid-tempo masterpieces and a few solid and stunningly eerie ballads that’ll knock you out. It’s possible that the return of producer Rick Rubin (Neil Diamond and Dixie Chicks) had a lot to do with turning this collection into a stunning trip, but whatever the reason, they’re all good enough to tout this as one of the best albums of the year…so far. After all, we’re only halfway through. Stadium Arcadium is most definitely a five-star collection that I’m willing to bet will still be high on the charts well into the second half of 2006.
Neil Young: Living With War
If Neil Young didn’t write his own songs, you can be sure one of the covers on this album would’ve been the 1970 Edwin Starr classic “War.” It seems that Mr. Young has expressed the same “What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” attitude in his latest and greatest anti-war saga aptly titled Living With War. Whether it was when he was part of the Buffalo Springfield with their superb 1967 anti-Vietnam anthem “For What It’s Worth” or his cohorts, Crosby, Still & Nash on the injustice of the four students murdered at Kent State University in 1970 on the brilliant and haunting lyrics of “Ohio,” Young has never wavered from his beliefs or feared what anyone thinks. The nine original songs on this album are more than subtle they are in-your-face anti-war and anti-Bush. One thing Young has made perfectly clear, he speaks and sings his mind whenever he gets the chance. On this, his 35th solo album, he doesn’t just throw in a song or two, he has dedicated the entire set telling George W. Bush exactly what he thinks of him and his crooked administration. One can’t help but wonder how the genius of Young works, especially since it’s reported that he wrote these songs in two weeks and four of them on the same day of their recording! The first song that caught the attention of the public was “Let’s Impeach The President” when it was leaked onto the internet two weeks prior to this album’s release, with lyrics such as "Let's impeach the president for lying/Let's impeach the president for spying/Let’s impeach the President for hijacking our religion and using it to get elected/Dividing our country into colors and still leaving black people neglected.” This and every track is sung with such fervor and rocking anger, it makes you push your fist in the air and want to march to his beat. Other songs that will leave you hauntingly rocked are “After The Garden,” “The Restless Consumer” (in which a chorus of 100 souls chant “Don’t need no more lies” over and over), “Shock and Awe,” while “Lookin’ For A Leader” desperately cries out for someone sane to take over this country. Young knows he’s out there as he warbles “Someone walks among us and I hope he hears the call/and maybe it’s a woman or a black man after all.” A friend of mine who sang in the choir on this album recently sent me an email and said, “Hands-down, the best moment of the day came while recording the final song. By that time, Young had left the console room entirely and was pacing around the studio, fully approving of our work. (And the adoration for him was always hovering like an aura.) The assembled choir was a combination of fatigued AND warmed up, and we were asked one of the rare times that day to break off into soprano-alto-tenor-bass parts for a bed of "oooohs" under some verses of a song written about a Vietnam vet. Loud, bombastic, beautiful oooooohs. But not right. And he coached us, ‘This is a song for someone who now lives in the wind.’ And then he dimmed the lights, cued the tape playback, and I swear the sound was other-worldly.” The final track is “America The Beautiful” with the choir singing this song somberly for our great nation. This album will lift you up, will make you angry and will make you do what so little music does today it will make you think. God Bless America and God Bless Neil Young.
Diana Ross: Blue
When Diana Ross recorded the soundtrack for Lady Sings The Blues (her Oscar-nominated role as Billie Holiday) back in late ’71 and early ’72, she did what most artists do she recorded an abundance of songs, along with alternate takes and tracks that were ultimately discarded. Only two of the songs made it to later Ross recordings: “Little Girl Blue” ended up on her 1973 smash album Touch Me In The Morning, and “Smile” by Charlie Chaplin landed on her exceptionally wonderful album Diana Ross in 1976. Songs that were recorded but never saw the light of day include Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It,” George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Loves Ya Porgy,” and Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “But Beautiful,” as well as “What A Diff’rence A Day Makes,” “No More,” “Had You Been Around,” “Can’t Get Started With You,” “Easy Living,” “He’s Funny That Way” and Duke Ellington’s “Solitude.” Songs that DID make it onto the original soundtrack but appear on this album with a completely different feel and alternate takes include the bonus tracks “You’ve Changed,” “My Man (Mon Homme),” the Gershwins’ “Love Is Here To Stay” and “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.” The tracks are sensational and I often wonder why this album was never released. The only conclusion I have reached is that Berry Gordy was completely satisfied with Ross’ enormous pop appeal and probably had the notion that if it ain’t broke… Just as the final track goes, he should’ve thrown that “notion right into the ocean.” By the way, this album is not just for Diana Ross fans, it’s for anyone who appreciates the songs of this genre and era. Ross has never sounded as passionate and emotional as she does on Blue. She did venture a couple more times into the land of jazz, most notably on her 1992 album The Lady Sings Jazz & Blues, but this original set of songs that were recorded when Ross was barely 28 years old is simply supreme!
*Diana Ross’ Blue will be available at participating Starbucks on May 16th and available everywhere on June 20th.
Dixie Chicks: Taking The Long Way
Frank Sinatra famously sang “Regrets, I have a few,” and when asking lead singer Natalie Maines of Dixie Chicks if she has any, she’ll tell you of one major regret she has she regrets apologizing to President George W. Bush for the remark she made three years ago on a London Stage. While on tour in 2003, the Lone Star state native told the British audience, “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” She now says of her subsequent act of making nice, “I apologized for disrespecting the office of the President, but I don’t feel that way anymore. I don’t feel he is owed any respect whatsoever.” I have to admit, when Maines made it clear she wasn’t sorry, I had already become a major fan of this new CD without even hearing it. I was so proud of her for not backing down to one of the most immoral administrations in our nation’s history. I knew I was going to love every song. Is that any way to review a new piece of art? Of course it isn’t. That’s why I’m thrilled and delighted that the latest disc from the Chicks, Taking The Long Way, is absolutely brilliant BRILLIANT!!! Speaking of not making nice, “Not Ready To Make Nice” is the wonderful leadoff single released to radio. Although several country stations have banned playing Dixie Chicks forever, they’re the losers for missing out on some of the best written and performed music of this decade. This is also the first time the Chicks have co-written every song on one entire album, and the lyrics are not only political, they’re heartfelt, sweet and out ‘n out the edgiest rock-oriented sound that these chicks have ever chirped. Producer Rick Rubin, who is just coming off of the great success of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Diamond and Neil Young’s latest epics, is the go-to man for a great rock and roll album. At the time of the album’s commencement, Rubin stated, “I think this should sound like a great rock act making a country album, not a country act making a rock album.” Maines concurred, “It was a very different style of working. You have to learn to relax and be okay with experimenting. We just knew we wanted to do something different.” And they have done something different. I always appreciated the Chicks for their vocals and their accolades (seven Grammy Awards), but I’ve never been wowed by an entire album of theirs until now. I suppose the pop/rock angle of this album is what I love the most, not to mention Maines’ powerhouse vocals and the trio’s writing abilities. It’s all here wrapped up neatly with a pretty bow on top. The only thing missing so far is a Best Album nomination. I suspect that will be their Christmas present when the Grammy nominations are announced next December. Until that time, enjoy this magnificent CD it’s one hour and five minutes of sheer democratic beauty.
Michael Bolton: Bolton Swings Sinatra
Michael Bolton is a superstar whether you like it or not. He’s as unpopular with the critics as Barry Manilow, and like Manilow, he’s a fan favorite for those who believe that the critics all have tin ears. Lucky for me, I’ve had my ears tested and there’s no sign of metal to be found. Truthfully, I never understood the harsh criticism, but I’m a fan of pop music, great lyrics, a great melody and a voice that is unique. To me, Bolton possesses all of these qualities. On his latest tribute to Sinatra, Bolton Swings Sinatra, he managed to not only choose a dozen sterling tracks (not a bad apple in the bunch) but he also sings them with such extraordinary passion, I think Ol’ Blue Eyes would’ve been proud. The title says it all, Swings, and swing he does. From the opener, “You Go To My Head” to the closing track, Sinatra’s version of “New York, New York” that he hijacked right from under Liza Minnelli’s nose to make it his own, his way. Bolton performs this overplayed number with such fierce commitment, he does it his way without forgetting the chairman and his unmistakable nuances. In between those tracks, we are treated to superb versions of “Fly Me To The Moon (In Other Words),” “For Once In My Life,” a personal favorite “Summer Wind,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and the Sinatra declaration “That’s Life.” There’s also an interesting duet with “Desperate” fiancée Nicollette Sheridan on a most fitting “The Second Time Around,” which comes off surprisingly well. Nicollette isn’t about to make her own CD with her limited range, but she manages to put the sweetness into this lovers’ concerto. Rounding out this set of favorites is “My Funny Valentine,” “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Night And Day” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” When you have a voice as passionate as Bolton’s and tackle such material written by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein and Kander & Ebb, to name a few, you’re certain to score a touchdown. This time around, Bolton goes to the Superbowl.
Dance Vault 2 & 3 Unreleased & Out Of Print: Various Artists
In one of my recent columns, titled “The Times, They Are A-Changin’,” I wrote that in the very near future, music would become more available as digital downloads and less available at retail outlets. I also added that if I wanted to keep with the “times” I’d better start getting used to that fact. Well, here I am, reviewing my very first compilation that’s available exclusively through the Internet. As long as I’m keeping my promise to my readers, I figured my first choice better be a great choice. And it is. This latest from RCA boasts music that spans from the 70’s right up to the present with songs that are currently making their mark on the Billboard charts. RCA Dance Vault 2 offers 10 tracks and over one hour of the best remixes this side of the old turntables that still spin these masterpieces. A standout is that these remixes are available for the first time commercially. Hence the subhead, Unreleased & Out Of Print. The unreleased tracks available include the current Kelly Clarkson hit “Walk Away” (Ralphi Rosario Main Club Mix) clocking in at seven and a half minutes. Other unreleased and/or out of print tracks include a cut from Whitney Houston’s last great disc from 1998 “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” (Johnny Vicious Radio Mix), Peter Rauhofer’s never-before-released remix of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” the 70’s out-of-print classic “Disco Nights” by GQ, Deborah Cox’s “Absolutely Not” (Mix Show Vocal Mix) plus five more including a stunning reworking of Heather Headley’s “In My Mind” (Freemasons Vocal Club Mix) and a seven-minute version of Alison Limerick’s “Where Love Lives” (Classic Club Mix). RCA Dance Vault 3, the latest installment available on iTunes as of June 6, 2006, includes 10 different versions of Aretha Franklin’s “A Deeper Love,” a mine full of unreleased mixes and songs from Whitney Houston including “How Will I Know” (Junior Vasquez Club Mix), two versions of “Greatest Love of All” (Club 69 Mix) and (Junior Vasquez Mix) coming in at 12 and 13 minutes, respectively, and the unreleased version of “I Will Always Love You” with a dance-run time of 10 minutes. There’s also a bunch of other unreleased Whitney classics for the collector of this divine Diva. Other artists with several never-before-released remixes include Deborah Cox, Lamya with 16 different versions of “Empires Double (Bring Me Men),” and Dido with 8 versions of “Sand In My Shoes,” while Alicia Keys’ penned “Diary” gives us four readings. I must mention never-before remixes of Annie Lennox, Phyllis Hyman, Expose, Angie Stone, Lisa Stansfield and Taylor Dayne classics are also available. Haven’t seen enough and want more? It’s simple gain access on the iTunes home page by typing in “Dance Vault” or log onto www.rcamusic.com and/or www.jrecords.com and find your favorite dance song to download. Keep these gems on your computer, make your own CD or download them directly to your iPod. Yes, the times they are a-changin’, so I suggest if you are interested in these or several other gems, give your tootsies a rest and let your fingers do the work. Just don’t break a nail.
These CD Reviews first appeared in the BottomLine Magazine in Palm Springs, CA.
© 2006 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.