CD REVIEWS – Winter 2009

Cyndi Lauper: Bring Ya To The Brink
Epic Records
Release Date: May 27, 2008

Cyndi Lauper has released a fabulous new all-out dance album of fresh material that should suit twenty-somethings, as well as the longtime fans that have been with her since she first burst onto the scene with her smash debut album, “She’s So Unusual,” a quarter century ago. This twelve track opus of pure electronica begins with the thump ‘n bump of “High And Mighty,” produced by Scumfrog (who’s best known for producing sensational albums for Kylie Minogue and Dirty Vegas), and never slows down until the album ends with the melodious and melancholy “Rain On Me,” produced by Axwell, which carries the most emotional vocals on the set – most reminiscent of Cyndi’s first few albums and most especially tracks such as “True Colors” and “Time After Time.”

In between tracks one and twelve, we are treated to a myriad of producers that have remarkably made this album one of the most cohesive and consistent albums of Lauper’s career. Richard Morel, who has masterminded hits for Mariah and Nelly Furtado, utilizes his talents on three tracks, one of which is “Same Ol’ Story,” which is a Hi-NRG fun-tastic dancefloor gem that is one of the most infectious cuts on the album. Trust me, this is one song you’ll have set on “Repeat.” “Set Your Heart” is a stylish disco track that is sure to have a home in clubs all over the globe. Then there’s Cyndi’s favorite on the collection, “Raging Storm,” which takes us into Hi-NRG electronic heaven.

Britain’s Basement Jaxx has taken Cyndi and the track “Rocking Chair” back to the future. Can a song sound retro and futuristic all at once? Apparently so, because this song has that 80’s vibe while it takes you to a place where you swear you’ve never been before. It’s fabulous!

Two tracks destined for dancefloor greatness. “Give It Up” produced by Digital Dog (who’s responsible for several electro hits including Rhianna’s “S.O.S.”) carries a wonderful melody and is all ready and set to go for several remixes, making this one of the best anthems on the set. My other favorite among favorites is “Lay Me Down” produced by Kleerup, which possesses an electro-industrial sound that has shades of Giorgio Moroder running all through it. Kleerup’s latest claim to fame is Robyn’s “With Every Heartbeat,” and this master obviously has an affinity for the industrial disco anthems of the late 70’s. This one is a stunner.

This entire collection is destined for dancefloor greatness and should give Cyndi Lauper her most successful album in years. Between the dozen dance-ready tracks, this opus has longevity written all over it.

To see Cyndi perform many of these tracks, be sure and catch the “True Colors Tour” that will be touching down at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on June 28. The remaining portion of the tour takes Cyndi and company to Berkeley, CA, Seattle, WA, Vancouver, BC, Salt Lake City, UT and winds down in Morrison, CO between June 29 and July 5. Check out for dates and ticket information.

Gay Days: Volume 5 – DJ Randy Bettis
Centaur Music
Release Date: June 10, 2008

DJ Randy Bettis delivers the fifth volume of “Gay Days,” and since 2004, as with each release, I can’t ever imagine the last topping the next. But that’s exactly what this series seems to do, and Bettis continues to prove that he’s one talented spin-doctor.

This thirteen-track non-stop journey through electronic heaven begins with Bettis’ own one and one-half minute introduction appropriately titled “Ready To Go,” which is a perfect indication of what to expect for the next hour-plus. Electro blended with digitized vocals suggest the beginning of the journey, with those three words repeating the title, sets the stage for LOGO’s #1 song of the year, Ari Gold’s “Where The Music Takes You.” And where it takes us is on a seven-minute fantasy ride of great vocals blended with a sensational electronic melody.

Gold’s anthem segues into additional familiar territory with Paula Abdul’s #1 Billboard Club Hit “Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow,” with Bettis’ wild Soul Seekerz Club Mix shaking things up for a frenetic five minutes before infecting us with the superb new uplifting song “Live Your Life,” performed beautifully by Housefellers featuring the dynamic R&B vocals by Cheryl Porter. Other brand new songs include Danielle Bollinger’s dynamic vocal attack on “Surrender Me” as well as Brian Kent who closes out the set on a high with “Everything Changes.”

Before the set does come to a close, and just when things couldn’t be more joyous, a song actually titled “Joy” comes along by Christian Hornbostel featuring Beverley T who sings the song with the title that could easily sum up this entire compilation.

One of biggest songs of 2008, “Bleeding Love,” is performed fabulously by Lady D, which could stand for diva, considering her complete vocal control taking this track to new electronic heights.

Blasts from the past (but nothing too dusty that hasn’t been brushed off flawlessly) is Love To Infinity & Kelly Llorenna’s interpretation of the classic “Hot Stuff,” as well as the 80’s anthem “Broken Wings,” shocking us electronically by Rivaz featuring Ronin. Candy arrives “Ride On Time” to give us a 2008 take on the this dancefloor anthem as Nick Corline vs. Katherine Ellis beg the melodic question “Could You Be Loved?”

This is the perfect fit and fix for the summer of 2008. Then again, it would work equally as well in all four seasons. This CD, like the aforementioned song, is so full of “Joy” it could well be the finest collection that Randy Bettis has delivered. It’s dance music that lives up to living life to its fullest, and is one of the happiest dance compilations from this master DJ.

On an electronic scale from 1 to 10, this one is a blowout. Come and experience the fun that’ll shock you all summer long.

Katy Perry: One Of The Boys
Capitol Records
Release Date: June 17, 2008

Every summer there seems to be a sleeper album that becomes the seasonal hit. This year it comes right on time, as Katy Perry delivers One Of The Boys, which is one of the most fun albums I’ve heard in a long time.

You may be familiar with two of the songs already. The first single, the fabulous “Ur So Gay,” has been available on iTunes for the past few months. It’s an up-tempo pop rocker that has Katy questioning her boyfriend’s metro-sexuality. The other familiar tune is the sexually confusing, but also sexually satisfying to Ms. Perry’s lips, “I Kissed A Girl,” which is rocketing up the Billboard Hot 100 where it’s currently at Number 5 in only its fourth chart week. By the time this review is published, it wouldn’t surprise me to see this single smooching the top of the charts.

Other sexually neurotic songs involving love and lust are the pop rockers “Hot ‘N Cold,” which has Perry examining the severe mood swings of her latest boy toy, and “Fingerprints,” which rocks in sync with “I Kissed A Girl” and is another ditty that involves self discovery.

Remember the days of waking up in the morning while having to pause a minute to get your bearings and think about the wild night before? Perhaps you’re still in that mode. Either way, one of the swankiest songs on the set is “Waking Up In Vegas.” Even if you can’t relate to the lyrics, the melody is so infectious, it really won’t matter.

The twelve songs mostly made up of pop rockers slows down for three poignant ballads; “Lost,” “I’m Still Breathing” and “Thinking Of You.” These three tracks allow us the privilege to hear Katy’s versatility as a vocalist. She can croon and break your heart as easily as she can lift your spirits.

The album is one pop rock song after another that echoes the sound and sentiment of other favorite female pop rockers like Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Alanis and Avril. If you’re a fan of one, some or all of those girls, you’re gonna love Katy Perry. This is the smash debut album of 2008 (so far).

Hercules And Love Affair
Mute Records
Release Date: June 24, 2008

This electronic love affair is already familiar to club-goers. Even if you don’t recognize the title of this group, you’re sure to recognize their dancefloor diamond, “Blind,” which was recently released and is already one of the most requested songs of the season.

Since you may not be familiar with the complete CD yet (released last week), the best way to describe the sound is futuristic electronica mixed with some of the most melodic music this side of disco. These musical genres collide for one of the breakthrough electronica albums of the year. Think Bowie meets Giorgio Moroder, and the classic sound of the late 70’s mixed with the electronica vibe of 2008.

Hercules And Love Affair is a group founded by musician and vocalist Andrew Butler. Joining Andy is DJ and singer Kim Ann, who is formally known as Kim Ann Foxman, and with the discovery of Antony, who is a fierce vocalist in his own right, they realized they all had an affinity for the classic disco music of thirty years ago. Eventually, a fourth person named Nomi, who is a great vocalist herself and one that evokes magic with her voice, blended with Andy, Kim and Antony to complete the sound they were looking for. And that sound is perfection.

The opening track, “Time Will,” that has Antony wailing against an electronic bass, is a scorcher. Other fiery highlights on this ten-track odyssey include “Raise Me Up,” “True/False, Fake/Real” and “Athene.” Trust me, these three tracks will be burning up dancefloors in the very near future.

This is certainly one of the brightest releases of the year, and dance aficionados will appreciate the brilliance that went into the making of this future classic that should become a fixture in clubs across America, and most certainly in Europe where this sound is so appreciated.

This collection easily lifts our spirits, as Hercules And Love Affair is a debut album with great strength.

Billy Joel: The Stranger – 30th Anniversary Limited Edition
Produced by Phil Ramone
Sony Legacy
Release Date: July 8, 2008

After a decade of anonymity, and four solo albums, it literally took The Stranger to become an overnight sensation. Of course, I’m speaking of the musical superstar Billy Joel, and his fifth solo album. Billy said, “I didn’t know it at the time, but if this album didn’t take off, my label [Columbia Records] was going to drop me because I had yet to produce a major hit single.” Although “Piano Man,” the song that became Billy’s signature-autobiographical-story-themed-song, was released four years earlier and was a modest Top 40 single peaking at #25 on the Billboard Hot 100, it would be two more years before Billy recorded one of his finest and most famous songs, “New York State Of Mind.” As brilliant as that track is from his 1976 release Turnstiles, the song didn’t even make a dent on the pop charts, but was receiving major airplay on rock stations that catered to album tracks. “New York State Of Mind” was the song that awoke me to Billy Joel’s genius and his stunning marriage of music and lyrics. In the fall of 1976, I became a lifelong fan.

His sentimental song “Just The Way You Are,” the first single released from The Stranger in late ’77, gave Billy his first gold single and his first Top 5 hit that put him on the global map, and set his career on a path that even he could not have dreamed. He said, “I almost didn’t even put ‘Just The Way You Are’ on the album. My band was all guys and we thought it was too much of a chick song. Then Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow stopped by the studio and said ‘You must put that song on the album,’ and we did.” The rest is multi-platinum history.

During the wave of success that “Just The Way You Are” was experiencing, Joel and Columbia released three additional singles from the album over the course of the next nine months; “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” Only The Good Die Young” and “She’s Always A Woman.” Interestingly enough, it was “Only The Good Die Young,” with its controversial lyrics of a church-going girl losing her virginity that caused protests from the Far Right and shot The Stranger to the Number two spot, where it peaked and remained for six weeks. Billy wrote a note to the church thanking them and asking them to ban his next album as well. The unstoppable soundtrack album to Saturday Night Fever is what kept The Stranger out of the Number One spot, along with the several other albums during “Fever’s” 24 week-reign at the top of the charts. Don’t feel too bad for Billy, The Stranger went on to sell ten million copies in the U.S. alone, becoming one of the biggest selling albums of all time.  

Other tracks that made this album a classic were the title tune, the song “Vienna” and the epic piano ballad and rock bombast of “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.” Those familiar with the latter track might be surprised to know that it was a restaurant across the street from Carnegie Hall on Seventh Avenue that inspired the song of theatrical proportion. Sadly, the restaurant no longer exists, but happily the album does and is now being released in three versions.

One version is a two-disc CD version, with the original nine songs digitally remastered plus the Carnegie Hall live performance from June 3, 1977 (just six months before the release of The Stranger), that includes three songs from the upcoming “Stranger” album, as well as legendary tracks from Joel’s first four solo albums that include the eerie and futuristic “Miami 2017,” “Captain Jack,” “Say Goodbye To Hollywood,” the extraordinary piano and vocal masterpiece “Angry Young Man” and eight other selections which, of course, include his now famous “Piano Man” and “New York State Of Mind”).

Another option is the three-disc set that includes the aforementioned two discs plus a DVD that is an early 1978 television appearance from the U.K., a BBC2 music show “The Grey Old Whistle Test,” which is said to be the template for MTV (which came along three years later) and has a similar track listing to the Carnegie Hall set but also includes a sensational rendition of “Root Beer Rag,” plus rare classics as “Souvenir,” “Ain’t No Crime” and closes with the global sensation and then controversial “Only The Good Die Young.”

The final option, which I recommend for any and every Billy Joel fan, is the four-disc Deluxe Box Set, which contains an additional DVD that contains several live promotional videos from The Stranger.

If you’re old enough to recall the glory days of this album, there’s no explanation needed. If you haven’t heard this original collection before, experience what all the fuss is about in digital glory. This album is truly Billy Joel’s tour de force of the 70’s. I urge all fans of the “Piano Man” and fans of the pop/rock genre to become familiar with The Stranger.

Mamma Mia!: Original Soundtrack Recording
Decca Records
Produced by Benny Andersson
Release Date: July 8, 2008

The rage began two weeks ago with the motion picture release of one of the most fun films of this year (or any year), Mamma Mia! Just before the release, the soundtrack recording became available and is already a Top 10 smash, debuting at Number 7 on the Billboard 200. If you’re a fan of ABBA or just great pop music, take a chance on Meryl Streep and company brilliantly performing the songs that made ABBA a household name within weeks of their first hit record back in the summer of ’74. That’s when ABBA first burst out of the box and became one of the biggest bands in the history of pop music. Their music dominated the 70’s as they packed twenty charted hits in just eight years, accompanied by a fan base that has stayed faithful to this day. It’s no wonder the stage show has already been seen by thirty million people all over the globe with box office sales still going strong in each city, most especially, Broadway.

Actress Rita Wilson, along with her husband, Tom Hanks, went to see this Broadway bonanza a few years back, and she told her Oscar-winning hubby “I think this would make the most amazing movie,” so they made it. Serving as executive producers, Rita’s instincts proved to be correct a few years earlier when she and Tom saw the stage production of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and, more importantly to Hollywood, one of the biggest grossing comedy films of all time.

Now that I’ve given you the basics of how the stage hit made it to film, let’s focus on the main reason why this show and soundtrack is such a big hit – the music, of course.

Eighteen songs that were penned by ABBA’s two leading men, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, with several also written with Stig Anderson, capture the magic of this soundtrack. This isn’t the first time these songwriters have had a hit out of their realm. In the 80’s, the award-winning Broadway musical Chess was a tremendous success that included songs such as “I Know Him So Well” and the chart-topping “One Night In Bangkok.” As for Mamma Mia!, all but three tracks were enormous chart hits. The three you may not be familiar with are “Our Last Summer,” performed by Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard, Amanda Seyfried & Meryl Streep, the poignant “Slipping Through My Fingers,” performed by Meryl Streep & Amanda Seyfried, and “the gorgeous ”I Have A Dream” performed by Amanda Seyfried. All are brilliantly sung. Anyone who has the slightest hesitation about any of these actor’s singing chops will be pleasantly surprised by their dynamic vocals, most notably Miss Streep’s ability to carry a quiet ballad or belt out the superb “The Winner Takes It All” in winning fashion.

Other performers that make this soundtrack such a sensation are Dominic Cooper, who duets on the dance favorite “Lay All Your Love On Me” with Amanda Seyfried, as well as Julie Walters and the always charismatic Christine Baranski on such numbers as “Money, Money, Money,” “Super Trouper,” and arguably the most popular ABBA tune, “Dancing Queen.” Baranski gets down sensationally with “Does Your Mother Know?”

The feeling of joy is genuine. According to all three, they had “the time of their lives” acting and singing their hearts out. Another highlight that shouldn’t be overlooked is “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” performed by Seyfried along with Ashley Lilly & Rachel McDowall. The trio also kicks off the soundtrack with the ABBA song “Honey, Honey.” If you ever wondered where Madonna got some of her inspiration for her 2006 smash album Confessions On A Dancefloor, listen to these classics. There’s even a sampling of “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! on her hit “Hung Up.”

The fun is more than apparent when Streep joins Walters and Baranski on the aforementioned numbers, but nothing brought tears of joy to me as much as Streep going solo on the title track and my personal favorite, the aforementioned “The Winner Takes It All.”

It’s a joy to listen to this incredibly talented cast performing some of the greatest pop songs that prove to be timeless treasures. Whenever you feel the need to lift your spirits, this soundtrack is the perfect remedy.

There’s already been an ABBA resurgence at record retailers and on iTunes. In the twenty-six years since ABBA has disbanded, there have been many compilations of their music – all best-selling albums. If you’re looking for a great retrospective of their hit songs, my suggestion would be to pick up ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits, which climbs to No. 6 on this week’s Billboard Pop Catalog Chart and has already sold 35 million copies worldwide. It contains nineteen of their biggest hits and is the perfect companion to the Mamma Mia! soundtrack. The songs include everything from “Dancing Queen” to “S.O.S.” to “Take A Chance On Me,” with the sensuous “Fernando” to the frenetic “Waterloo,” along with several others that are sure to demonstrate to a younger generation what made this group such a phenomenon in the first place.

Lea DeLaria: The Live Smoke Sessions
Ghostlight Records
Produced by Janet Mason
Release Date: September 9, 2008

The gay community is quite familiar with Lea DeLaria and her bawdy brand of humor. She’s captivated audiences for more than two decades. She’s a pioneer who has gone where many lesbian performers had never gone before, appearing before national audiences on television, stage and recordings as the first openly gay performer, beginning in 1993 when she first appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show. Also, many thanks to Arsenio and his staff for also recognizing her talent and allowing her to shine in a spotlight that remained dim for the gay community until that first appearance fifteen years ago.

Many think Ellen and Rosie were the trailblazers, but it’s Lea who first opened the doors to the American television audiences, where many openly gay performers are now enjoying their success. I always give credit where credit is due, and in this case, Lea DeLaria deserves every ounce of it.

On September 9, Lea delivers her finest album, which is one of the swingiest and swankiest jazz albums I’ve heard in eons. Lea takes on such heavyweight songwriters as Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and several more on a live set that’ll leave you almost as smokin’ hot as her deliveries.

Among the timeless classics, Lea kicks off the album with a sensational rendition of the Harold Arlen/E.Y Harburg gem “Down With Love.” When I tell you her vocals are hot, they are warmed up as much as the piano and bass that accompany her. She continues to wow the live audience with a fabulous version of Joe McCoy’s “Why Don’t You Do Right” and segues sensationally into the Cole Porter staple “Miss Otis Regrets.”

Things slow down when she delivers a smooth as silk rendition of Arlen and Mercer’s enduring “Come Rain Or Come Shine.” She also takes on the haunting Cole Porter tune “Love For Sale” and continues to send shivers down our spine with the sultry Dan Raye/Gene DuPaul scorcher “You Don’t Know What Love Is”

Most people identify these songs with the singers that made them famous such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, but Lea makes the songs all her own. She also displays her versatility on the Sinatra staple “Night And Day” and one of Doris Day’s best, “Love Me Or Leave Me.”

Whatever your mood is, I guarantee you’ll not want to leave Lea’s latest sensational collection behind, but rather embrace the songs and love the album and the woman as I do. Yes, Lea started a very important movement many years ago for the gay community, and this album is further proof of why her career has endured and why the nation as a whole has embraced her immense talents.

Andrew Suvalsky: A World That Swings
LML Music
Produced by Andrew Suvalsky and Bennett Paster
Release Date: September 9, 2008

If it’s swing you’re looking for, look no further than Andrew Sulvasky’s sophomore collection of the Great American Songbook with the finest songwriters from its heyday, including Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen, as well as pop geniuses John Lennon & Paul McCartney and Carole King’s contemporary songs sung with a twist.

Suvalsky swings with the best of them (them being Torme, Sinatra, Vaughan and Fitzgerald) and keeps up with contemporaries such as Michael Buble and Harry Connick, Jr. as if he was born to sing these standards in his own inimitable style.

“Lover, Come Back To Me” begins the set and continues the sensational swing of the piano, bass, drum and guitar with the occasional flute and alto sax for one of the best versions of this standard.

I’ve never heard Carole King’s “I Feel The Earth Move” quite this way, and I’m sure Ms. King would be thrilled to hear her smash hit reinvented in such a unique manner. It’s simply sensational. The Beatles’ “Fool On The Hill” was always a favorite of mine and Suvalsky continues my love affair with this song as he embraces it in the way that any Lennon/McCartney song deserves to be treated.

Suvalsky also shows off his versatility with a flare for the Latin genre with spicy renditions of “One Note Samba” and “Corcovado (Quiet Nights),” both written by Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Of the thirteen tracks, a couple of songs are slowed down to perfection, with sultry versions of “When The Sun Comes Out” and a smashing rendition of Irving Berlin’s masterpiece “How Deep Is The Ocean?”

The album closes with one of the most energetic versions of “Night And Day” that has ever been recorded. It’s an all out jazz-fest and we, the audience, are the lucky ones as we feast on one of the sexiest jazz albums to date. Once word gets out about this album, Suvalsky’s name should begin to become as familiar as his aforementioned contemporaries.

My Grade: Four Swinging Stars!

© 2009 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.