blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Appetite For Power Pop
4 Out Of 5 Stars

For better or for worse, OK Go are more known as the band who make videos of themselves on treadmills and inside contraptions made up to look like real life versions of the Mousetrap game. What gets overlooked is that, for four albums now, there's a first rate pop-rock band hidden behind the paint balls. "Hungry Ghosts," four years after "Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky," captures that effortless pop fun that the band has been excelling at since their debut.

Admittedly, the oddly funky and falsetto filled "Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky" was a divisive album for fans, but that can be forgiven here. "Hungry Ghosts" keeps some of "Colour's" quirks while integrating them into the new music. It means the twitchy new wave of the debut is tempered into sonic neatness like the atmospheric "Another Set of Issues." They haven't completely forgone their fascination with Prince by way of The Cars, like the cowbell clanging "Obsession" and the danceable "I Won't Let You Down" shows. Vocalist Damian Kulash gleefully bounds from the straightforward power pop vocals to the funky stuff while making the whole of "Hungry Ghosts" a cohesive album.

While "Oh No" remains OK Go's high-water mark, "Hungry Ghosts" is a crowd pleaser. Fans will be happy to hear OK Go in fine form, and note that the four year wait was well worth it. From the pop magic of "Upside Down and Inside Out" that opens things up to the gentle strains of the final "Lullaby," this is a solid album from beginning to end, proving they can have their say without adorable trained dogs to guide them.



   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Checking In at The Five Star Motels
5 Out of 5 Stars

It is one of those stories that became all too prevalent in the 80's; decent band is forced to compromise for mega-success. Martha Davis and The Motels suddenly found themselves on the brink of stardom, and their record company didn't like the album they had prepared. An ultimatum was issued - go back into the studio with a producer of Capitol's choosing and his session hacks for a redo or no deal. The band swallowed hard (and nearly disintegrated). Val Garay (who had worked on the original sessions) delivered the keyboard dominated new sessions and "All Four One" was the result.

The final album treads a very fine line between arena rock and the edgy, arty new-wave the first two Motels albums were focused on. Only "Art Fails" and "Apocalypso" (the original album titles) sound like they came from that period. But the polished up Motels also brought lead singer Martha Davis into an even sharper focus, making the torchy "Only The Lonely" into the band's signature hit. The other two radio draws here; "Mission of Mercy" and "Take The L," pulled down radio play and established not only the Motels, but the crossover sound of safe New Wave. As such, "All Four One" is a classic album from the early 80's, helping to usher in a new sound.

There were also a pair of surprises here. Martha turned jazzy for the haunting "Change Your Mind," a major departure for The Motels' albums. The second was the inclusion of an obscure but controversial Carole King/Gerry Goffin song that Phil Spector produced for The Crystals, "He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss." An ambiguously angry song about relationship abuse (or a cheeky ode to SM, take your pick), the original song was released as a single and subsequently blacklisted from radio. It makes its selection as a cover on "All Four One" all the odder, seeing as the band was fighting Capitol to record an album that would be commercially more viable than the "Apocalypso" sessions had yielded. As such, it was pretty much a backhand to the suits and helped The Motels maintain a semblance of edge.

Granted, the sudden success made the band all the more eager to stay safe (Little Robbers is almost a carbon copy of this and even cleaner). However, there are still plenty of reasons to like "All Four One." The remaster will drive audiophiles nuts as the compression really flattens and over compresses the percussion in particular, but I'm glad just to finally have this CD back in my library.



   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Gavin Makes His Big Pop Move
3 Out Of 5 Stars

After the top ten success of "Sweeter," touring with Train and Maroon 5, you could hardly blame Gavin DeGraw for wanting his albums to achieve that headliner level of success on his own. "Make a Move" is just that kind of album, tasting of the generic pop Maroon 5 turns out on a regular basis, but minus the charisma of an Adam Levine, and pumped up production-wise until it falls victim to the loudness wars. Even with a decent stereo system, "Best I Ever Had" splats its way through its over-compression. If that's not enough, the songs here are all co-helmed by hired guns like Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, which robs the songs of personality but makes them sound exquisitely tailored for pop radio, like the way "Heartbreak" so effortlessly clones Maroon 5.

That's a darn shame, as the best moments of "Sweeter" and earlier albums showed a promising keyboardist writing and performing some nicely personal work and showing some semblance of personality, ala Five For Fighting's John Ondrasik. As over-done as "Best I Ever Had" is, it's still a darn fine poptune. Same for the mellower "Everything Will Change," co-written with Boys Like Girls' Martin Johnson (who made their pop move on their last album, "Crazy World"), but it still feels like the most personal song on "Make a Move." In total, there aren't any real bad songs here, only indistinguishable ones. That isn't always a hindrance, so if the album wasn't so darn over-produced, I might have bumped it to a fourth star. Between the over-cooked sound and what sounds like a general removal of Gavin's personality, "Make a Move" comes off as generic. He's done better.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
You've got something that will save us now.
4 Out Of 5 Stars



Like the modernistic neon bars used to indicate the "New" title, Paul McCartney steps up to the new world of modern-ish music and applies a sheen and glow to his newest collection of pop-tunes. While "Memory Almost Full" seemed like a coda to a long career and well lived life and "Kisses From The Bottom" had a wiff of the old-fogy about it, "New" tosses that aside and finds McCartney still willing to challenge his younger contemporaries, down to having hot-shot Mark Ronson produce a few selections, in particular, the buoyant title track.

The lead-off, "Save Us," is a rocker in the Wings mold, without the annoyance of "Nod Your Head" (from "Memory") or the screaming mania of "Cut Me Some Slack," the song Paul recorded with the surviving members of Nirvana. Yes, despite the willingness to go out on the occasional limb, "New" is an album that is eager to please, even if it doesn't play its hand as a totally safe one. In that aspect, it's reminiscent of "Flaming Pie," one of Paul's best from the 90's. Which also means that there's a shout out to his days as a Liverpool youngster on "Early Days," where he tells those who have romanticized The Beatles too much for his tastes by stating "I don't see how they can remember/When they weren't where it was at."

McCartney certainly isn't above a little cheekiness, as "Early Days" and the buzzy "Queenie Eye" show. And who would have thought Paul still had time for a little lyrical nonsense like the clever "Alligator?" It's also a pleasant surprise to hear the keyboard driven "Road," which is the haunting final song before the uncredited song "Scared." "I'm still too scared to tell you...the simplest of words won't come out of my mouth, though I'm dying to set them free," he croons in the way only McCartney can in "Scared." That McCartney can still be so emotionally naked and willing to try and challenge himslef in the way "New" does is a pretty remarkable feat for a man making music for over 50 years.



   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Guaranteed to Raise a Smile
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Glee hasn't shied away from The Beatles before, including some very deft covers, like Chris/Kurt doing "Blackbird." This time, though, for "Glee Sings The Beatles." they are tackling the Fab Four across two of the TV episodes and one full CD. Much like the attempts to do Madonna, Rocky Horror, or Grease, they're going all in. If you're a true purist who couldn't even tolerate the soundtrack to "I Am Sam" or "Across The Universe," you might have issues. Surprisingly, however, Glee takes on a handful of fairly obvious Beatles classics and treats them with respect.

I can't imagine what was going through the hearts and minds of the cast as they were taking on some of the more emotional heft of some of the songs here, so close to the passing of Cory Montieth/Finn. But when Lea Michelle opens up on "Yesterday," you can hear the emotion pouring out. Easily the best performance of the album, even if any other circumstances surrounded it. For the most part, the arrangements are kept close to the originals, with the exception of "Got To Get You Into My Life," where 'Klaine' mix it up with a marching band. On the TV episode, they even went as far as making a mock-up of the Ed Sullivan set for "When I Saw Her Standing There."

The CD does do a split between early and later Beatles, saving the music from the older period for the second episode. "Get Back" is stripped to just a piano version, and frankly, it's almost impossible to screw up "Let It Be," hay Jude" or "Here Comes The Sun" while you're staying faithful to the arrangements. With "Something" being one of my top ten personal favorite Beatles songs, I'd take it as blasphemy to try and mess with the original. In fact, the only stumble on this disc is performing "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and then NOT following through with "A Little Help From My Friends."

When Glee started, this was the kind of music I was expecting from the show. The first two seasons did a lot to mix in classic pop, modern songs abd show tunes in equal measure, to the point where I thought the "Presents The Warblers" was one of the best of the batch. For "Glee Sings The Beatles," the do a service to some of these records that inching towards their 60th Birthday, and that is bringing them to a whole new group of listeners. That's something I'm all for happening.


   
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When You Move Me, Everything Is Groovy
5 Out of 5 Stars

Proving that "Save Me San Francisco" was no fluke, Train roll on with their career's second act with "California 37." They've matured into a first class pop band, wielding hooks alongside an often bizarre sense of humor. Kind of like Maroon 5, but without the teen-idol thing going on. They're even smart enough to self-reference their surprising comeback on the opening song by giving lead singer Pat Monahan the opportunity to give both a history of his life and the evolution of Train in under four minutes, but to thank the band's fans and then do it all without the least bit of irony. "This'll Be My Year" alone would put the album at 4 stars just for compositional value alone.

However, "California 37" has plenty of other charms. There's the twisted "50 Ways to Say Goodbye," in which Monahan cuts down an ex-lover by singing "How could you leave me on Yom Kippur?" The mariachi inspired horns on "Drive By" (a great single, by the way), lift that song into a fun and unusual direction, and the title track again turns to Train's fans and thanks them for being there when the band wasn't in the spotlight.

Relationships are also put to the test, song-wise, including "You Can Finally Meet My Mom," sung as a plaintive love song with a straight face. Country singer Ashley Monroe sings along in a duet about old flames getting back together in "Bruises," made ironic by the fact that both parties are coming down from bad relationships. Train keeps making these very standard sounding pop songs that have crispy tops, so the temptation to call "Highway 37" perfect is awfully close. I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt. At the very least it's a 4.5 just on the unconventionality of the lyrics and the fact that I've been listening to it for over a year without getting tired of it.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
The Original Trio and The Original Songs
4 Out Of 5 Stars

The original America trio of Vocalists/guitarists Dewey Bunnell, Dan Peek, and Gerry Beckley made faux CSN type of California pop so deftly that their initial single, "Horse With No Name," folled many into believing it was the other famed trio. Eventually the word got out and America soon began a string of seventies hits that made their first best of, "History," one of Warner Brothers' biggest selling catalog albums of the time. There have been many anthologies of America issues over the years, but this "Definitive Pop Collection" stands as one of the best.

Focusing solely on their WB tenure, "Definitive Pop" is a pretty exhaustive collection. Culling 30 songs from seven albums, the only things missing are "The Border" and "You Can Do Magic," but they were recorded for Capitol records and must not have been available to be licensed for this 2 disc set. (You can get them on "America - The Complete Greatest Hits.") But for the money, this comes up just short of the even more exhaustive Rhino box set Highway: 30 Years of America."

As to the music itself, the band kept it light but pure. The mainstay was well harmonized folkish pop, augmented with the occasional banjo ("Don't Cross The River"), electric guitar (the mysterious "Sandman") synthesizers ("Only In Your Heart"), and via producer George Martin on their later albums, some exquisite Beatlesy production (you try to listen to "Lonely People" without thinking of "Eleanor Rigby"). The three men also were a formidable songwriting trio, with each man capable of writing their own hits. In fact, it is only the treacle of "Muskrat Love" that came from an outside source on this set.

That's not to say there aren't some clinkers (I could have done without "Watership Down," for example), but they are far outweighed by such classic delights as "Sister Golden Hair," "Tin Man" or "Woman Tonight." Janet Jackson was so fond of "Ventura Highway" that she sampled it for her hit single "Someone To Call My Lover." Buoyed by many enjoyable album cuts, a decent band history/essay, and some missed singles like "Everyone I Meet Is From California" or "Amber Cascades," this is easily all the America you could ask for a minor price. The only thing better would be the "Complete" set, but it's also the America that went on without the late Dan Peek. This is the original trio in all its soft pop glory.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
When he's Bad, he's very, very Bad
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Michael Jackson had the inevitable and unenviable task come 1987 of releasing a follow-up to not just one of the biggest selling albums of all time, but one of the most beloved, "Thriller." "Bad" is the result, and it couldn't help but pale in comparison. That's not to say the album lacks for terrific material, in fact, punch for punch, it is very nearly "Thriller's" equal, and it certainly is better than "Off The Wall." It once again racked up multiple chart hits, with five singles hitting number one from '87 to '89. Thanks to Quincy Jones, the production is immaculate, and between Jones and Jackson, the songs not written by Jackson were cherry picked to magnify Jackson's strengths.

"Bad" also was formulaic in its pursuit of Thrillermania. The big dance number is the title track. The bad girl of "Billie Jean" is replaced by "Dirty Diana." That's also where the star rock guitar solo comes from, with Billy Idol's Steve Stevens takes the place of Eddie VanHalen. The superstar duet came from Stevie Wonder instead of Paul McCartney, on "Just Good Friends." And the happy-time dance song was "The Way You Make Me Feel" in the same vein as "Pretty Young Thing." While Jackson hinted at his personal paranoia on "Billie Jean," this time it comes out fully formed as "Leave Me Alone" (which was not on the original album but basically is considered part of it after it was released as a video).

But everyone from the 80's already knows that. The man reason to bother picking up the 25th Anniversary of "Bad" is the second disc of bonus tracks. Three of them were on an earlier reissue, "Streetwalker," "Fly Away" and a Spanish version of "I Just Can't Stop Loving You." Now we get the later in French, plus six previously unreleased demos. I'm no fan of modernized remixes, so I'll refrain from commenting on the likes of Pitbull hanging out on "Bad." Of the new tracks, the Latin feel of "Don't Be Messing Around" is the most intriguing, and shows what a perfectionist Jackson was. It sounds like a finished song, yet Micheal gave it a pass and never went back to it for future CD's. "Song Groove (Abortion Papers)" would have been controversial on many levels, yet it has a wicked groove. "Price of Fame" is another complaint about fame and even references "Billie Jean," and "Al Capone" milks the "Wanna Be Something" groove needlessly. Both are no big deal.

Bottom line, if you bought the 2001 reissue, there's not much of a reason to go after "Bad25."


   
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An excellent quickie career overview of Three Dog Night
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Three Dog Night started in the late sixties as a rocking outfit who made their reputation at their concerts. To the point that one of their earliest albums was "Captured Live at the Forum." But they soon evolved into a singles act, racking up 21 top forty hits between 1969 and 1975. What they also had was impeccable tastes in songwriters. They plucked out gems from the likes of Laura Nyro ("Eli's Comeing"), Harry Nillson ("one"), John Hiatt ("Sure As I'm Sitting Here" not included here) and Leo Sayer ("The Show Must Go On"). They really struck gold on what became their standard bearer, the inescapable "Joy To The World." Face it, you just went "Jeremiah was a bullfrog" in your head after reading that last line. Don't fib.

They were buoyed by a trio of lead vocalists, Danny Hutton, Chuck Negron, and Cory Wells. It was one of the qualities that kept the band's sound fresh. They could work their way around a rocker like "Liar," something soulful like "Never Been to Spain," or the inspired silliness of "Joy To The World." If you were an AM radio listener through the early seventies, Three Dog Night were pretty much unavoidable. That also began to work against them; as the band became more popular, the more obvious it became that they were fishing for hits and the albums became wickedly uneven, with the final straw being 1975's "Hard Labor," the band broke up soon after.

This quickie dozen song compilation from the Icon series gets the job done on the cheap, but cuts that string of hits down by a few essentials. "Sure As I'm Sitting Here" and "Play Something Sweet" immediately spring to mind. That's why the three star/C grade is applied here. I will also note that the sound of this CD is heads above any other Three Dog Night re-issue. Worth it for the value, but not for the depth.


   
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Good Sports
4 Out of 5 Stars

The album that made Huey Lewis and the News into stars was almost unavoidable from 1984 through '85, when five of these songs became huge hits (and overseas, you could have added "Bad is Bad"). That Huey was Hollywood photogenic didn't hurt during the peak years on MTV, making the videos for the songs fun to see (you can find them on The Greatest Hits CD + DVD Combo), but the band's slick combination of Pop Rock and R'n'B should not be underestimated.

Huey's gruff but lovable voice carries the charm on much of his best work, and that made songs like "Heart of Rock and Roll" and "Heart and Soul" irresistible. They even found themselves in an unwarranted controversy when "I Want a New Drug" rankled the ire of some parent's groups. (And what sells records better?) They also had a great ear for covers, as they do a slick version of Hank William's "Honky Tonk Blues."

Slick is the operative word here. "Sports" was the pinnacle of Huey Lewis and The News' rough and cuddly period, still coming on like a hungry bar band. By Fore!, the band had lost their fight and had become the smooth pop band favored by yuppies everywhere. That is not to say that The News weren't capable of taking a poke at themselves and their new-found status, one of the best hits from "Fore" was "Hip to Be Square." But for sheer party-album thrills, "Sports" was hard to beat in the mid-80's.

For this 30'th Anniversary edition, there's a second "Live Sports" disc filled with live tracks, mainly between '83 and '89, but two from 2012. Yes, Huey and The News still tour regularly. The '88-89 dates are the band at their career peak, so the crowds are enthusiastic and the band is in top form, and the songs follow the original LP's running order. For my money, "Bad Is Bad" remains a News high-point, getting as close to their approximation of frat-rock and real R'n'B as they ever came. Even so, the live disc points out Lewis' strengths; a tight band that has the muscle to play rock like it's an all night party, songs that rocked slickly enough to be fun and nonthreatening, and a singer who you could take home to mom. "Sports" may not be a perfect record, but it still sounds current. Not bad for a 30 year old.


     


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All the Best, Remastered and Remembered
5 Out Of 5 Stars

What this "Best of Simon and Garfunkel" collection does is, simply, lay out all their amazing singles on one hour-plus CD. It outshines the original "Greatest Hits" by not overlapping songs and by having a much improved quality of sound. Sure, you've probably heard half (or more) of the songs in high rotation on classic pop radio stations, but hearing them in digital clarity really does - and I hate to use the cliche here - bring them back to life.

More than anything else, the best of these singles highlights the exquisite harmonies these men had together as well as spotlights the strengths of Paul Simon's and Art Garfunkel's singular voices. Garfunkel's young, angelic choirboy voice still elicits chills on "Bridge Over Troubled Water," while Simon's leads often show a potency that can be unexpectedly forceful ("Hazy Shade Of Winter"). Yet they are still at their best when the voices blend as they do so beautifully on "Scarborough Fair" or the 70's reunion hit "My Little Town."

The non-hits work in the collection's favor. Short of buying the complete collection box set, the pickings here are choice. "The Only Living Boy in New York," "Old Friends/Bookends" (the song they opened their concert with when I saw them a few years back) or the live version of "For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her" will please the curious who are looking for more than just the hits. Some of the songs are a bit goofy/dated ("At The Zoo" and "The 59th Street Bridge Song"), but they can be forgiven when something as magnificent as "The Boxer" or as joyous as "Cecelia" play. For the value per dollar, "The Best of Simon & Garfunkel" is as good as you're going to get.


     


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Time and place.
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Craftily mixing the best of the British Invasion energy to Blue Eyed Soul, The Rascals ran up a string of terrific hit singles in the 60's and early seventies. "Time Peace" mixes those singles with a few choice album selections (many of them covers) to prove that vocalist Eddie Brigati, keyboardist/vocalist Felix Cavaliere, guitarist Gene Cornish, and drummer Dino Danelli were more than just a singles act, even if their albums were frequently spotty affairs. After all, who can't resist the infectious joy of "Good Lovin'" or the relaxed flow of "Groovin'?"

You'll also find the singles "You Better Run" (later a hit for Pat Benatar) and "How Can I Be Sure" (covered by of all improbable people, David Cassidy), but misses one of their most important singles of their career, "People Got To Be Free." Some of the earlier singles ("I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore" being a major offender) are of a primitive recording quality and labor under dated production effects (switching the vocals from stereo left to stereo right in "Mustang Sally"), but this was the mid-sixties. Forgive those things and you have a document of The Rascals that holds together better than most bands of the same period.


     


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A Gold Decade
4 Out Of 5 Stars

This Sting Compilation, "Fields Of Gold 1984-1994," is the best of the Sting anthologies out there. Even more recent releases are less powerful than this one, because Sting was at a peak for the most of this period. The albums range from "Dreams of The Blue Turtles" to "Ten Summoner's Tales," which skips the less than stellar "Mercury Falling" but does miss out on his "Brand New Day" comeback and "Sacred Love."

You get the poetic Sting of "Fortress Around Your Heart," the thoughtful man who wrote "Fields of Gold" and the activist who wrote the still stunning "Fragile." Two of his other political songs, "Russians" and "They Dance Alone" are here, as well. Then there's that voice. Keening and pure, the sound that made The Police stand head and shoulders above so many of the New Wave groups of the day. Granted, the trio rose beyond that label quickly, and it was Sting's determination to stretch out more that led to a solo career in the first place. It's hard to imagine his original trio jazzing it up like Sting did on "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free" or the more solemn and personal "When They Dance."

"Fields of Gold" marks the strongest period of Sting's solo years. You may be tempted to go for one of the other sets, but don't. Along woth a Police best of, this is a chronology of a brilliant career.




     


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The Summoner Calls
5 Out of 5 Stars


In ye merry olde England, if you were about to be charged with a crime, the law of the day would pay someone to come and fetch you. That person, the Summoner, would be paid for his duty, but as the story goes, could also be paid to look the other way if the object of his attention made a generous counter offer. Such is the case with Sting, who wants to have it both ways. He wants your attention on "Ten Summoner's Tales," intriguing you in ten different ways before offering an epilogue at the end. He's eager to please this time, putting aside the morose but intriguing jazz fusion that his previous three albums had for a more pop approach.

From the first single, the Gospelish "If I Ever Lose My Faith In You," the change is apparent. Sting laments a world where politicians "all look like game show hosts to me" (funny how that still seems true) over a poppy hook and a snappy bass line. Then story time takes over with "Love Is Stronger Than Justice," a pedal-steel inflected story of bandits, and then the tale of the longing that is "Fields Of Gold." maybe one of my all time favorite Sting songs, it drifts across a Spanish guitar and is one of his loveliest ballads.

There are a few attempts at humor, like the dialogue during "St Augustine In Hell," where a special circle is left open for music critics, or the "Epilogue (Nothing About Me)," where he can't help but taunt that, after ten songs about assorted characters, you don't know who the teller of the stories really is. The songs range form poppy to enigmatic ("Something The Boy Said"), yet the man himself remains a cipher till the very end. Seeing as his last couple of albums were such personal affairs, the looser feel of "Ten Summoners Tales" and its songs from outside the sphere may make this Sting's most accessible album. Back in 1993 when I was still writing for a major trade paper, this was one of my faves of that year. Still is.


     


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Old News is Good News
3 Out Of 5 Stars

 
It took nine years for Huey Lewis and The News to move from "Plan B" to "Soulsville," and it's time to travel back in time. if you recall, this is The News second stroll down a full disc of memory lane. In 1994, the band issued "Four Chords and Several Years Ago," an attempt at tipping their collective hat to the band's R'n'B influences. This time they go a step further and head to the legendary Stax studios to get a little of that authentic Stax groove, horns and female singers intact. (Think Cris Isaak's trip to Sun Studios for "Beyond The Sun.")

For the most part, they pull it off by pulling at plenty of the obvious picks. Solomon Burke would have been an easy choice to pluck from, but the band goes for a more obscure single "Get You Off Of My Mind" (which was a number one R'n'B single, but barely cracked the top 40. It was easier to cover "Cry to Me," ala the Rolling Stones, or "Tonight's The Night." Same with Joe Tex's "I Want to Do Everything for You." Lewis has always been an erstwhile soul singer, even in his pop days, so the materiel suits him. In fact, the only blunder is covering "Respect Yourself," already done to death by the likes of Bruce Willis. It's like old friends together for a good night of jamming.

The only thing that bums me out is that Huey and The News have not issued a new CD for almost a decade of fresh material. Given that he hasn't done so since "Hard at Play" (1991) prior to "Plan B," it would be nice to see what kind of song-stash they've built up. C'mon Huey, we know you've got a good CD in you somewhere.


     


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Toot Toot, Hey, Beep Beep
5 Out of 5 Stars

Disco was always a producer's medium. Most of the records were based on a single, often made by studio musicians and just as often, not being capable of following things up. Donna Summer was part of that machine for her first few albums, which often seemed lackluster in comparison to her vibrant, catchy hit singles. But then came "Bad Girls." Summer was still teamed with a simpatico producer (the trendmaking Giorgio Morodor), but she had become the closest thing Disco had to a reigning star (quick, other than Village People, name one disco act with a lasting and recognizable career), and for the first time, an album that hung together as an entire piece. And not just a single disc, either. "Bad Girls" roared out of the box as a double disc collection.

Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" took all the tropes of disco (throbbing beats, swirling strings, catchy hooks) and made it into more than just the hits. Summer also pushed the medium by going outside the dance floor with ballads ("On My Honor"), straight ahead pop ("Dim All The Lights") and electric rock meld with the dance material (Jeff Baxter's red-hot solo in "Hot Stuff," preceding Eddie Van Halen with Micheal Jackson by a decade). Tie it to a concept about creatures of the night and the whole city scene, and you had disco's first bona fide ground-breaker. Summer helped by having the chops to carry the album vocally, while Morodor jumped effortlessly from dance to his patented Euro-sound and the poppish ends of the album.

There was much more than the classic singles. "Sunset People" would have been a hot had the times been concerned about over-exposure for albums (same with "Walk Away," a minor hit nonetheless), while closing the album's concept about waking up on the strip and seeing a new day dawn with promise. "Dim All The Lights" continued the new idea of starting a dance-floor smash with a slow into and hitting the meat of the song with a blast (think "Last Dance" and "On The Radio"). "Like everybody else," she belts on the title track, "they want to be a star." So did Summer, and "Bad Girls" said it all across two long players. Perhaps her artistic peak as a singer and writer, it's also her best album overall.



     

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First Chance This Century
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Eighteen full years since their last album, "Propeller," (there was also Jeff Murphy's solo "Cantilever," the live "Fret Buzz" and a few archival reissues), the true pride of Zion Illinois return with "Ignition." The Shoes haven't aged at all since the 70's it seems, with the sugar coated hooks, candy coated harmonies and buzz coated guitars all remaining intact since the late 70's. That is not to say Shoes have not matured, but if you though their brand of Power Pop had gone extinct, "Ignition" will reignite that passion for all things dreamy buzzed.

First things first, though. "Ignition" is almost maddeningly uneven. I get the feeling this might have been better as a 10 song album, as many of the songs miss the immediacy of those classic early albums. Jeff and John Murphy and Gary Klebe still can harmonize like nobody's business and that often overcomes for the weaker of the songs. Besides, when your vision of pop includes both The Beatles (almost any given track here) and The Stones (the whiplike snarl of "Hot Mess"), it's enough to give a power pop geezer like me the frickin' vapors. You also can't help but get giddy from the wonderfully constructed "Out Of Round," recalling some of the brilliant ballads from the genius trilogy of "Present Tense," "Tongue Twister" and "Boomerang."

Okay, I am hyperventilating a bit. But as a one-time card carrying member of Shoes' fan club and a follower since "Black Vinyl Shoes" days, I'd pretty much guessed that these guys had called it a day. Perseverance and talent will out in the case of "Ignition." I don't know how far past the band's long suffering core of true believers will get this, but anyone who still slaves over their old copies of Pezband, 20/20, or other basic 4 member combos that looked towards "Rubber Soul" or "Revolver" as their lodestones should pick up "Ignition."

Choice cuts also include "Diminishing Returns," the melancholy "Only We Remain," the kick-off "Head Vs Heart" and "Say It Like You Mean It."ALSO: New best of!


     



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Oh How I Miss K-Tel
3 Out Of 5 Stars

I only own a few of these "Now That's What I Call Music" sets, and usually it has to have a song on it that I either refuse to buy an album for, or that there's a song you can't get anywhere else. The 43'rd disc in this series fits that bill on two counts. First, Carly Rae Jespen, who has one hit wonder written all over her, has "Call Me Maybe." The catchiest song of the summer, followed only by Goteye's "Someone That I Used To Know," is here. I doubt that I'd ever buy an album by her (or One Direction, here with "One Thing" and their by the numbers BoyBand TeenPop), so the appearance on a compilation is worth it.

The second is Maroon 5's "Payphone," which is catchy as all get out, but ruined by a useless Wiz Kalifia rap. On this set, the rap is gone as are the superfluous profanities. It's a rare case where the radio edit is better than the original, something that drives me crazy as an album buyer.

So what's left? There's the giddy punk-pop of Neon Trees' "Everybody Talks." The heard on a commercial "Midnight City" by M83. An obligatory country entry by the tolerable Luke Bryan, "Drunk On You." I also likes Ellie Goulding's "Lights" and (so shoot me) Jusitn Beiber's "BoyFriend." The rest is just poptunes state of the 10's, which means heavy on the synthed out beats (Usher), candy rap (Pitbull, with a rap from "Men In Black III") and stuff to do aerobics to. Your tastes, and therefore, results of satisfaction, will vary.


     


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Omnidirectional
4 Out Of 5 Stars

A slight comeback from the uneven "Stay On These Roads," A-Ha's "East of The Sun West of The Moon" started with the clap of a thunderstorm and ends with a fading rainstorm and more thunder. That should be enough to warn us all that the disc is off to some pretty moody territories, and you'd be correct in that assumption. It also was A-ha's total fade out from the American market, failing to break onto the US charts, although the terrific cover of "Crying In The Rain" did get some adult contemporary airplay. It doesn't diminish the band's chemistry in the slightest, though. Core duo of Morten Harket's falsetto vocals and Pal Waaktaar's guitar with Magne Furuholmen keyboards maintain the trio's overall sound.

Yet that sound, while unmistakeably A-ha (due mainly to Harket's incredible voice) is reaching out the bounds of synth pop. There's the moody and extended "Sycamore Leaves" and the guitar driven "Cold River." The harmonies of "Crying in The Rain" are more subdued than soaring, and the title track is a great story of looking for lost love. "Rolling Thunder" always felt like the end of the album to me, but there's a melancholy coda to follow..."Seemingly Nonstop July" ends the disc on a barebones acoustic guitar and modest keyboard line as Harket croons a hopeful, if brief, paean to younger lovers while a voice in the background yells "You better wise up, endless pain!"

It makes "East of the Sun" a middling A-Ha album, on a par with "Scoundrel Days", maybe a little under the follow-up "Memorial Beach." They were still making decent albums, even if the US had stopped paying attention.


     

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Dance into the sunset
4 Out Of 5 Stars

While not as widely heralded as the band's always lauded "Rumours," "Tango In The Night" could easily be the best of their post "Rumours" efforts. This was the last album recorded by the Christine/John McVie, Stevie Nicks, Lindsay Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood Lineup (Buckingham split afterwards), The album peaked at number 7 and dropped two top ten singles in the twisted "Big Love" and "Little Lies," with "Seven Wonders" and "Everywhere" being substantial hits.

Starting off life as a Buckingham solo album, "Tango" morphed into a Fleetwood Mac group disc. Produced by Buckingham and longtime cohort Richard Dashut, he brought his edginess to a great portion of the disc, from the push and pull of "Big Love" to the quirky "Family Man." Nicks revisits her love songs to strong women theme with "Welcome to The Room (Sara)" and Christine McVie scored with the lovely "Everywhere." Mick gets to do more with his drums that usual, like the middle eastern vibe of "Caroline," and the title song. Buckingham is still in charge, though, his signature vocals are dominant throughout.

Even with that, this still sounds like a group effort thanks to the contributions from McVie and Nicks. It allows Buckingham to exit on a solid plain, while the rest of the band have offered him a gratifying curtain call. Still one of their best efforts. (Given the collapse that followed, that's worth repeating. "Behind The Mask" peaked at 33 and had one top 40 single;"Time" failed to even hot the top 100.)


     

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