Selected music reviews:
Good Charlotte, "The Chronicles of Life and Death" (Epic)
Good Charlotte has a good problem with "The Chronicles of Life and Death."
The band has left behind its megahit debut album "The Young and The Restless," and in its place given birth to a darker sound. The problem? Whether the sometimes fan, who helped propel the pop-punk band's previous album to multiplatinum status thanks to its feel-good, head-nodding melodies (think "Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous"), will buy the band's approach with its latest release.
Good Charlotte does give listeners a taste of its first album with "Predictable," the first single from "The Chronicles of Life and Death." But the use of a cello along with numerous complicated melody changes give the biggest hint that this album is not business as usual for the band.
In "We Believe," Good Charlotte shows their chops as songwriters with a dual message - one an appeal for a more peaceful political time and the other of one woman's longing to have her son back. It is perhaps the strongest song on the album, thanks to the lyrics: "There's a woman crying out tonight/Her world has changed/She asked God why/Her only son has died/Now her daughter cries/She can't sleep at night." It continues: "Downtown another day for all the suits and ties/Another war to fight/There's no regard for life/How can they sleep at night?/How can we make things right?"
"Walk Away" is big pop-punk with loud guitars and even louder drums. It's followed on the album by "S.O.S.," a considerably more quiet song (think rock ballad) for Good Charlotte. "I Just Wanna Live" is hypnotic with its string-drum mix.
The album's real weakness is its opening number "Once Upon A Time: The Battle of Life and Death," which is way over the top, and worse, it bleeds into one of the standout songs, the album's title track. Yes, it's artsy. But it's too artsy for a pop-punk band.
The hardest part of success for any band is overcoming a smash album. Good Charlotte has done it differently, if not better. Here's hoping the sometimes fan goes along for the musical ride.
Fatboy Slim, "Palookaville" (Astralwerks)
It's nothing for musicians to turn curious eyes toward electronica to broaden their sound. Leave it to DJ Fatboy Slim to add traditional instruments to his turntables on "Palookaville" and see what spins out.
Sure the 40-year-old Fatboy, also known as Norman Cook, is an aging elder of club sounds, but "Palookaville" mixes the breakneck beats of his youth with a bit of DJ introspection and a flavoring of unlikely rock 'n' roll classics.
Mix some fuzzy base beats, funked out guitar licks compliments of Bootsy Collins live and in person, and lyrics rapped like Snoop (f'shizzle), and the space cowboy rides again with Slim's own version of Steve Miller's '70s hit "The Joker."
And "Don't Let The Man" has Fatboy sampling lyrics from the Five Man Electrical Band over a reggae beat. Dancing wildly to "the sign says long-haired, freaky people need not apply," gives the hippie anthem a whole new meaning.
Fatboy Slim's mixes are ubiquitous to electronica and forays into purely digital sounds aren't entirely absent on the album, though they leave a bit to be desired.
"Jin Go Lo Ba" has a house beat with manic breaks, and "El Bebe Masoquista" lays a clean electric guitar sample over dark synth rhythms and beats. They're two of the album's better tracks.
But "Slash Dot Dash" and "Song For Chesh" rely too heavily on a single repetitive sample, making the tracks monotonous and unlikely dance floor hits.
De La Soul, "The Grind Date" (Sanctuary)
When you try to pigeonhole De La Soul, the talented rap trio wriggles free to create music that, simply put, is the most unique in hip-hop. They've done so again with "The Grind Date," a must-have thoughtful mix that's more soul than rap, yet rough enough around the edges to maintain some street cred.
There are lots of lo-fi tricks employed here, from the inclusion of crackling worn-vinyl on "The Future" to the old school crowd claps on "Verbal Clap."
But at the heart of De La Soul remains a conviction to care about others. They've toughened over the years, working hard to shed the hippie-rap moniker the group was saddled with for years following the landmark offering "3 Feet High and Rising."
Mission accomplished - finally.
"We run mics, let Sean run the marathon/Yo raise that money son, we raising these kids," they rap on "Verbal Clap," taking a slight dig at P. Diddy's athletic exploits. De La Soul explains on this song why patience pays dividends in matter of artistic creativity, rather than rushing for chart hits and dollars.
The top track is "The Grind Date," a guaranteed head-mover with a heavy bottom beat. It's a bitter tale about the sacrifices necessary to endure a modern-day recording contract. Someone apparently got the short end of the business stick, and De La Soul minces few words about having to swallow that sour pill.
Thanks to this sterling album, after a few hit-and-misses, it's safe to like De La Soul again.
"Translinear Light" (Verve/Impulse) - Alice Coltrane
Pianist-organist Alice Coltrane, the widow of legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, has emerged from her semi-retirement from the jazz world with her first commercially released album in nearly 25 years. The music, played by duets, trios and quartets, is powerful and inspiring, reflecting her lifelong spiritual journey.
The traditional "Walk With Me," replete with Coltrane's characteristic block chords and cascading arpeggio runs, draws from her roots playing gospel music as a young girl in a Detroit church. Coltrane, who shared in her husband's adventurous musical explorations as a member of his last combo from 1966 until his death in July 1967, reinterprets two of his tunes with the help of their son Ravi (who also produced the CD) on tenor saxophone. "Crescent" has been turned into a gently lyrical ballad; while a condensed version of the stormy "Leo" features blistering solos by mother (on Wurlitzer organ) and son.
Coltrane, who has devoted herself to spiritual pursuits since founding her Vedantic Center ashram, a yoga retreat, in California in the mid-'70s, also draws inspiration from Hindu religious music. The opening "Sita Ram," a joyful traditional drone which she also recorded on her 1971 album "Universal Consciousness," showcases Coltrane's unique Wurlitzer organ sound as she uses a modulator to make the notes slide up or down, sounding as if she's playing a reed instrument. The album closes with "Satya Sai Isha," a traditional chant with Coltrane's organ accompanying singers from her ashram.
The 11 tracks, with nearly 70 minutes of music, also include several new compositions by Coltrane. "The Hymn" is a soothing melody on which Coltrane's synthesizer engages in a call-and-response with youngest son Oran's alto sax. On the meditative "Triloka," Coltrane reunites with bassist Charlie Haden, with whom she recorded duets in the '70s. "Jagadishwar" is a soothing ballad with Coltrane's synthesizer subtly driving and cushioning Ravi's bluesy tenor sax. The highlight is the nearly 10-minute ballad "Translinear Light," which opens with a rippling piano solo, followed by a reflective mother-and-son dialogue with Ravi on soprano sax, before Haden and drummer Jack DeJohnette enter to create a modal groove for the soaring soloists.
Those familiar with Coltrane's albums from the '70s might regret that there is none of her distinctive harp playing on this session. But this CD represents a welcome return for a musician with a distinctly personal sound who has always placed spiritual sincerity over commercial pursuits.
>William Shatner, "Has Been" (Shout! Factory)
William Shatner is once again the "talk" of the music industry.
In the 1960s, he achieved TV fame for his role as Captain Kirk in "Star Trek" as well as recording fame - or infamy, if you prefer - for his dramatic readings of lyrics to contemporary pop songs including "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "Mr. Tambourine Man."
In "Has Been," Shatner returns with an album of 11 recitations, mostly new. His collaborator is Ben Folds, who produced and arranged the album and co-wrote, with Shatner, many of its songs.
The lyrics, which Shatner says are "thoughts and experiences of mine that very few people have heard before," are performed in Shatner's trademark "chewing the scenery" style with some legitimately good musical backing by Folds and others.
Two of the songs are standouts if you can tune out Shatner's part. One is "Familiar Love," a 1950s-style ballad, complete with choir. The other is "Real," written by Brad Paisley, who also plays guitar and sings along. "Real" is a catchy country-flavored song with a good lyric: "I'd love to help the world and all its problems. But I'm an entertainer and that's all.... Sorry to disappoint you. But I'm real." Paisley wrote the song for this album, but a version on which he sings alone would be terrific.
Some of the songs are downright depressing, just right for Shatner's mournful intoning. "That's Me Trying" is a plea to his long-estranged daughter for renewal of their relationship. In "It Hasn't Happened Yet," Shatner laments: "At my age I need serenity, I need peace. It hasn't happened yet." And "What Have You Done?" has minimal musical accompaniment as Shatner describes finding the body of a loved one (his third wife drowned in 1999.
Not depressed yet? Try "You'll Have Time." It starts with some quiet, somber organ notes. But the peace is soon startlingly shattered as Shatner proclaims, in a voice that sounds as if he were announcing the lineups at the ball park: "I hate to be the bearer of bad news. But you're gonna die!" Then he recalls, in rhyme, some famous deceased: "Johnny Cash, JFK, that guy in the Stones; Lou Gehrig, Einstein and Joey Ramone."
On a welcome lighter note, "I Want You To Be You" has a humorous lyric in which Shatner tells someone that she is perfect just the way she is - with several exceptions.
"I Can't Get Behind That" is a three-minute rant in which Shatner and Henry Rollins, backed by a frantic drum set, sound as if they are on the verge of a nervous breakdown as they take turns complaining about gasoline prices, student drivers, improper English, leaf blowers, Spam and - get this - "so-called singers that can't carry a tune, get paid for talking."
Shatner might have been serious when the made this CD, but many who buy it will do so for its campy appeal.
John Denver, "John Denver Definitive All-Time Greatest Hits." (BMG Heritage)
It's hard to hear anyone mention John Denver's name and not have a line from one of his songs not pop in your head. Oh sure, people will say they don't like him. It's not hip to admit to enjoying Denver's music. But deep down in that dark place hip music lovers don't like to go, you like him.
So perhaps that's why nearly six years after his death in an airplane crash, music labels continue to rerelease his songs. This year alone, there have already been four releases. BMG Heritage is the latest, releasing the "Definitive" album 11 days before the anniversary of his Oct. 12, 1997 death. Taken with the fact that this year marks the 35th anniversary of Denver's first album for RCA, which is owned by BMG, it makes commercial sense.
The latest album contains all the songs you would expect from a greatest hits album - "Leaving, On A Jet Plane," "Take Me Home, Country Roads," "Sunshine On My Shoulders," "Rocky Mountain High, "Annie's Song" and "Thank God I'm A Country Boy." There also is a bonus disc of four songs, including acoustic versions of "Annie's Song" and "Calypso."
While it's a fair representation of his work - 20 songs, including two duets - it is far from the complete, defining work of a man who released more than 20 albums. Missing from the "Definitive" album, among others, is "Windsong," "Autograph," "Higher Ground," "Some Days Are Diamonds" and, of course, "Grandma's Feather Bed." Perhaps there's a second definitive all-time greatest hits album on its way from BMG.
But for what it is, the "Definitive" album hits the highlights and is more than worth a listen for those who don't have a collection of Denver albums. And don't worry hip music lovers, you can hide it in the back of your music collection and pull it out when nobody's around.
Katrina Elam "Katrina Elam" (Universal South)
Katrina Elam grew up in Oklahoma doing talent shows and critiquing her home karaoke performances. Then she moved to Nashville, to be judged by the music industry.
Not to worry. Her powerful voice and her right-on lyrics seem to have won them over. She just made her debut on the Grand Ole Opry and her first CD is a winner as well.
The 20-year-old singer-songwriter has been guided by the advice of fellow Oklahoman and fan Vince Gill on her self-titled album, and the instrumental backing of Keith Urban on her first single, "No End in Sight."
But it's Elam who sells the CD with that rocker, followed by "The Breakup Song," a classic country ballad with a nifty hook at the end.
All but two of the 11 tracks - with a strong bent toward traditional country - are co-written by her. Some are autobiographical, like "Normal," about being shunned by high school classmates: "Everybody does it, that's what everybody says as they smoke their cigarettes on Friday night/And if you're still a virgin by the time that you're a junior, then the rumor going' around is you ain't right."
Or"Drop Dead Gorgeous," a title that turns out to be a recommendation to a former boyfriend rather than a description of him.
She shows her rowdy side in "I Want a Cowboy," then her soft side in the poignant "Flowers by the Side of the Road" (with Union Station's Dan Tyminski singing background).
From tender ballads to powerful vocals reminiscent of Martina McBride, Elam shows a mature writing style and knockout interpretations that should keep this CD current for awhile and her fans waiting for the next one.
Emeline Michel, "Rasin Kreyol" (Times Square Records)
Floods, hurricanes and political coups cannot silence the "Queen of Haitian Song." Listen, and you will hear hope for the world's first black Republic in the voice of Emeline Michel.
Michel lives in New York, but was born in Gonaives, Haiti, where more than 1,500 people died because of flooding caused by the recent Hurricane Jeanne. She says her eighth album, "Rasin Kreyol," is her way to "be there" and show the positive side of the 200-year-old nation's culture.
She ministers to her people with lyrics that challenge America's policies towards "boat people," and grieves betrayals by failed leadership. Michel lays her classic, effusive vocals over frenetic hand-drums playing traditional musical styles, such as Haiti's laid-back dancehall music called compas, and rara, which is high-energy carnival music that usually inspires lots of gyrating. She sings in her Creole (spelled Kreyol in Haiti), recalling childhood memories and mango trees in "La Karidad." In "Nasyon Soley (Sun Nation)" she implores Haiti to stay strong because "We don't want to grow old elsewhere waiting/For our country to get better."
In the liner notes, Michel says she is indebted for having "inherited a history so indisputably magnificent." This music gives us a poignant taste of that history.
GoTan Project, "Inspiracion-Espiracion" (XL)
On the heels of their acclaimed debut, "La Revancha del Tango," the Paris-based trio GoTan Project has released a double CD remix album, "Inspiracion-Espiracion." Not strictly a remix record in the conventional sense, the album is more a potpourri of new compositions, performances of GoTan tracks by other artists, tracks from "La Revancha" remixed by other artists and other artists material remixed by the trio.
On "La Revancha," GoTan Project created a perfect blend from the sensuous beauty of tango music and the hypnotic beats of electronica. Listeners familiar with that first record may wonder how far this spellbinding union of genres can be taken. On "Inspiracion-Espiracion," the artists successfully chart a musical course beginning with tracks from tango masters like Anibal Troilo from the 1940s and Astor Piazzola from the 70s and ending with collaborations with electronica stars Peter Kruder and Pepe Bradock. GoTan's musical odyssey includes an encounter with cool jazz by way of a tango remix of Chet Baker's version of "'Round Midnight." But actress Cecelia Roth's haunting recitation of a Juan Gelman poem on "Confianzas" against their signature mix of beats and bandoneons is the album's best track.