** Rachael Yamagata at The Vic, (312) 559-1212 TM, Jan. 29
** Britney Spears at Allstate Arena, (312) 559-1212 TM, March 19
What with a stint on Broadway (in Annie Get Your Gun) and a popular WB series (Reba), Reba McEntire is one busy country diva. So busy, in fact, that her new album Room To Breathe (MCA) is her first studio effort in a few years. As always, McEntire has a knack for finding songs that suit her voice and style and sound as natural as breathing. Never one to shy away from songs with topical themes, McEntire begins with 'Secret,' a song about a woman dealing with keeping the child she gave up for adoption 'a secret that she can never tell.' 'My Sister,' celebrates the joys of sisterhood with a funky little beat and Allison Krauss can be heard on the tearjerker 'Once You've Learned To Be Lonely.' 'Moving Oleta' is the most touching song about the traumas facing an elderly couple since Kathy Mattea sang 'Where Have You Been?' 'He Gets That From Me,' also sung in the voice of a mother, is the flipside of 'Secret,' and the dramatic title track provides her with room to stretch. Reba also glorifies her gospel roots on 'Love Revival,' 'I'm Gonna Take That Mountain,' and 'Sky Full of Angels.'
The day after the American Music Awards in November 2003, TV entertainment reporter Sam Rubin commented on how Pink's performance (in which she sang 'Trouble' accompanied by a guitar) blew away the smoke and mirrors of Britney Spears and the horrendous fluff of Hillary Duff. Could it be because Pink is the genuine article and not a pre-fab Disney doll? On Try This (Arista), Pink's raucous and rebellious new album, the hip-hop pretensions have been replaced by a rhythmic rock vibe in which the colorful singer sounds completely at home. Pink doesn't forsake her dance connection (how could she after the success of the Linda Perry penned 'Get This Party Started'?) and gives her club fans plenty of dance floor fillers such as 'God Is A DJ,' 'Tonight's The Night,' and 'Save My Life.' She refines her rock edge, working once again with Perry, and Tim Armstrong (of Rancid), and in doing so guarantees a shelf-life for her music that will surpass her colleagues. Try noteworthy tunes such as 'The Last To Know,' 'Oh My God' (featuring Peaches), 'Catch Me While I'm Sleeping,' 'Waiting For Love,' and 'Try Too Hard.' For those who purchase the 'parental advisory' stickered disc, fasten your seatbelts for the hidden track that follows the lovely 'Love Song.'
On her sophomore effort, Folklore (DreamWorks), Nelly Furtado once again displays a maturity unparalleled by many of her contemporaries. Like its predecessor, Folklore's opening track, 'One-Trick Pony,' begins with a stunning string arrangement; the difference here is that it is performed by none other than the Kronos Quartet. The combination of the strings, Furtado's vocals and the other instrumentation also reminded me of an Ashley MacIsaac song, which worked in her favor. Many performers, whose first albums are a success, expend a surprising amount of energy on lashing out at those who helped with their ascent, and Furtado is no different, although 'Powerless (Say What You Want),' has an endearing fury. Furtado continues to move smoothly between musical styles, incorporating elements of hip-hop ('Explode,' 'Fresh Off The Boat'), folk pop ('Try'), world ('Forca,' which features Bela Fleck on banjo, and 'Island Of Wonder,' with guest vocals by Caetano Veloso) and haunting ballads ('Childhood Dreams'), extending her legend and establishing her own folklore.
You know what they say about the company you keep? With the sick-making Madonna duet 'Me Against The Music,' a below-average song that took seven (!) people to write, for In The Zone (Jive) the only 'zone' Britney Spears may find herself in is The Dead Zone. Fortunately for centerfold-wannabe Spears, a few of her other collaborators are an improvement over the immaterial one. On '(I Got That) Boom Boom,' Southern hip-hoppers Ying Yang Twins help Spears put the dirty back into the 'Dirty South' and Roy Gartrell's banjo is a nice touch. 'Early Mornin',' about stumbling in as the sun is rising, features Moby in multiple roles and is an interesting, if not entirely successful, experiment. The 'freak show' Spears refers to in the R. Kelly produced and composed 'Outrageous' sound like it owes a debt to Missy Elliot and The Matrix concoction 'Shadow' is merely a shadow of a power ballad. Spears gets lost in the whispery fog of the ballad 'Everytime,' which is a pity because it had the potential to be a pleasant way to bring the zone to a close.
The roses and the peasant blouse that Leona Naess wears on the cover of her new self-titled disc (Geffen) are an indication of the softer California quality of the music to be found within. The grittier edge of her first two albums has been smoothed over, like stones at the beach washed over by the constant tides. 'Calling' is seductive and captivating without being overbearing, the theme song for the first or the fiftieth date. The other side of love is explored on 'Don't Use My Broken Heart' and 'He's Gone' is uncharacteristically upbeat. 'Ballerina' is a slow and graceful dance in which the partners move away from each other and 'Dues To Pay' tallies it up with piano and a string section. 'Home' has a happy, but weary, wanderer quality to it and comes closest to the Naess of old and 'One Kind Of Love' is a love song to which everyone can relate on one level or another.
After an intriguing disc of cover tunes and a rather uninspired live recording, Rickie Lee Jones has returned to form with her best album of original tunes in years—The Evening Of My Best Day (V2). Always lingering on the fringes of jazz vocals and arrangements, Jones edges ever closer on 'Ugly Man' (a song that sounds like a stinging indictment of the Bush dynasty) and the near Brazilian/French accented 'Bitchenostrophy' (with Grant Lee Phillips on backing vocals). Jones conjures her early years, as well as a tip of the hat to Steely Dan on 'Second Chance' (which includes a line about a 'countdown to ecstasy') and feels the funk on 'Little Mysteries.' 'Lap Dog' and 'Mink Coat At The Bus Stop' are bluesy numbers destined to be covered by Victoria Williams and the testifying gospel of 'Tell Somebody (Repeal The Patriot Act)' is her most political tune since, well 'Ugly Man.' A bass clarinet and string section elevate the sentiments of 'A Tree On Allenford' and the gorgeous title track had me this close to tears.
A Gap ad, a kids' book, pseudo-same-sex kisses on MTV and a movie career that is the source of more than a few jokes. Madonna is one busy mother (of two). And her music career, once the model of things creative and cutting edge (if a bit heavy in the shameless self-promotion department), continues its rapid descent into oblivion. The seven-song EP Remixed & Revisited (Maverick/Warner Brothers) probably won't do much to repair the damage. Jason Nevins's remix of Madonna's latest single 'Nothing Fails' is followed by Ray Carroll's Headcleaner Rock Mix's 'Love Profusion' and 'American Life,' and the Mount Sims Old School Mix of 'Nobody Knows Me.' Collectors of Madonna memorabilia will probably want this EP for the 'Like A Virgin/Hollywood Medley' featuring Christina Aguilera (say, that girl can sing!), Britney Spears (say, that girl can't!) and the ubiquitous Missy Elliott, as well as the previously unreleased track 'Your Honesty.' Sadly, nothing leaves enough of an impression to make it worthwhile. Remix, revisit, remake, remodel. Why not just retire?
Three of LeAnn Rimes's biggest hits, 'Blue,' 'How Do I Live,' and 'Can't Fight The Moonlight,' all of which can be found on the considerable Greatest Hits (Curb) collection, are examples of her versatility, which is especially notable considering her age. In the years since her debut album (containing the country gem 'Blue') was released, Rimes has sung duets with Elton John ('Written In The Stars') and Ronan Keating ('Last Thing On My Mind'), continued to be a hit-maker in the country realm ('Big Deal'), made countless cover tunes her own ('You Light Up My Life,' 'Unchained Melody,' 'Crazy'), co-written a song with gay songwriting superstar Desmond Child ('Life Goes On'), had a dance club hit (the previously mentioned 'Can't Fight The Moonlight') and belted out a movie theme song power ballad (the aforementioned 'How Do I Live'). And she did nearly all of that before reaching 21. This collection also includes the new song 'this Love,' and is available with a limited edition bonus DVD that includes four video hits.
April March (a.k.a. American-born Elinore Blake) scores a bulls-eye with her chic French chanteuse act on her new album Triggers (PIAS/Tricatel). These all-season French-pop tarts are tantalizing and undeniably tasty. The musical constellation 'La Nuit Es La' maintains the fine line between retro and current. 'Somewhere Up Above' is a song about fate involving 'your blood across the windshield' that will have you looking over your shoulder while you dance. 'Coral Bracelet' is a glossy free-association postcard about missing kids on milk cartons and Florida and 'The Life Of The Party' has the potential to make the sexy boys of Air envious. The all-too-brief title track is a shot of disco love and 'There Is Always Madness' is the musical answer to practically every question. 'Zero Zero,' co-written by the amazing Warren Zanes (if his Pictured Britney Spears, Nelly Furtado and Leona Naess.
Memory Girls disc isn't part of your collection, it should be), is any ambient pop song that you can count on and 'Necropolis' is a lively underground instrumental.
I have a love/hate relationship with concept of the 'extended play' disc and Rachael Yamagata's EP (Private Music) is no exception. Although in her case, it's more love than hate. The six songs here (including the hidden track 'These Girls') did such an unprecedented job of making me admire Yamagata's songwriting and performance skills that I must have played it three times in a row to make it feel like a full-length album. All I can say is, I want more and I don't want to wait for it. 'Collide' recalls Liz Phair (in a good way) with a touch of Lisa Germano. The disc's centerpiece, the impossibly infectious dance track 'Worn Me Down,' demonstrates that Yamagata's years with Chicago funk unit Bumpus weren't a waste of time. Calling all DJs and remixers: please transform this song into the dance club smash that it deserves to be. 'The Reason Why' is achingly gorgeous and should come with a box of Kleenex and 'Would You Please' comes close to making the same claim. The previously mentioned hidden track 'These Girls,' which indicates that Yamagata has a handle on heartache, is well worth the wait.