blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
In Charge
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Sounding more supple and vested than anyone could have expected at this stage of her career, "I'm Not Bossy, I'm The Boss" finds Sinead O'Connor still exploring her themes of romantic bruising, the push and pull of theology and the inner turmoil that has marked her work since the beginning. Her voice has gained a rougher edge over the years, which is masked on this album by multiple vocal overdubs. The pure voice is no longer there, but she hasn't completely ruined it (ala Joni Mitchell). She also seems a little more playful, in the tone of the album's title and latex love goddess cover picture.

While that playfulness slips into the songs ("How About I Be Me") and occasionally upping the tempo ("Take Me to Church" another theology rant bucked up by self-empowerment), it makes the album a delightful listen. There's also the O'Connor who creeps under your skin, especially on the potent "Streetcars," which loses the multi-tracked vocals and allows her to use that powerful voice backed by little more than a piano and bells. It closes the CD with a reminder of just how potent an artist O'Connor can be when she's at her best.

On the opposite end, she's trod this ground more than a few times and there's not much here thematically than you've heard if you've been a longtime follower. I like the song "8 Good Reasons," but I am weary of her railing against the music industry. She's had a career that many singers would die for, even if she's not the Miley Cyrus type that she's publicly chastened. But as she states on the CD's inner sleeve, "This Album is Dedicated to Me." She still has melodic fire and opinions to be outspoken with, and with "I'm Not Bossy..." O'Connor makes a nice return to form in the manner in which she wants to make it.



   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
And it's finger popping.
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Coming off the rocking success of "Eat To The Beat," Blondie hit 1980 ready to do whatever struck their fancy. The result, "AutoAmerican,' was a hodgepodge of styles, everything from disco, rap, rock, cabaret, a surprisingly well done showtune from "Camelot," even reggae. The album starts of eclectically enough, with the mostly instrumental drone of "Europa," which ends with Debbie Harry robotically speaking about phase gridlock and being left on your rims. Getting that out of their systems quickly enough, "AutoAmerican" breaks into a disco groove with "Live It Up," which seemed, in comparison the such monsters as "Heart Of Glass" and "Call Me," a bit tepid.

Which sets the tone for much of "AutoAmerican." Blondie was so all over the map that many of the songs kind of pale in comparison to other songs from earlier albums. The hits off the album itself show those flaws in sharp relief. The number one "The Tide Is High" (a cover of a Jamaican band called The Paragons) took reggae and used Harry's breathless vocal to make a striking pop song that stuck to the roof of your brain like the best of their singles. Then there was the truly unique "Rapture," in which a mostly underground and novelty form of music suddenly found itself at number one. It could easily be the first rap/rock crossover single. and still holds up remarkably well after over three decades.

One of the things missing from "AutoAmerican" was the rock. There's nothing here to compare to the explosive "Dreaming" or the muscle of "The Hardest Part" from just one album back. There are a couple tries, like the wild abandon in "Walk Like Me" and the horn driven "Go Through It." It also shows up on the bonus tracks, where the extended version of the number one "Call Me" blows away many of "AutoAmerican's" weaker moments. Harry was at Force 10 against Giorgio Morodor's Eurodisco pumping pulse. Which means that the best of the album are the singles, one of which is a bonus track. It didn't much matter at this point as the band was beginning to splinter (Frank Infante had to sue to be on the album) and the limp "The Hunter" would quietly close this chapter on Blondie. (They've made a couple of very strong reunion albums, including "No Exit" and "Panic Of Girls" in the new century, however.)



   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Richer and Darker
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Natalie Merchant has become more of a rich singer as the years have gone by. Her voice has become more full, her alto voice breathing a deeper mood to her new music on "Natalie Merchant." While deeper moods will likely come as no surprise to her fans (I've been one since seeing 10,000 Maniacs three times), the introspection might be. Gone are the days where she sang poetic socially agitated lyrics atop the Maniacs' new wavish pop, instead, she sings her straightforward poetry in a mix with some truly gorgeous instrumental players.

She's not totally devoid of socially conscious songs, as "Texas" could easily been seen as skewing a certain former president. But it's more mood than anything else she's aiming for. The fork tinged "Seven Deadly Sins" is a perfect example. Stripped to a fairly bare boned structure that slowly builds from acoustic beginnings to slide guitar and ultimately to a martial drum and tastefully played french horn ending, it's adult contemporary music that's for contemporary adults. It's finally at "The End," where Natalie once again touches on the wishful thinking of liberals, that she sings for the final laying down of arms against a 'sea so wide and treacherous,' all while backed with another gorgeously played string section. She may have a touch of grey in her hair as the CD cover depicts, but the elder spokeswoman of "Natalie Merchant" delivers pretty songs that are filled with the most distinct of emotional weight.



   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Falling for Exotica
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Hailing from Iran, the US and her adopted homeland of Canada, Roxanna uses her multicultural upbringing to inform "Exotica," a lushly produced debut album. While she claims Olivia Newton John and Julio Iglesias as muses, the modern listener will hear traces of Gloria Estefan and Celine Dion. That could be drawn from producer Mark Portmann, who has worked with the likes of Dion, Barbra Streisand, Annie Lennox and Christina Aguilera. You get the picture. Pretty pop, lovingly sung by a wishful Diva. The extra thing Roxanna has going for her album is the distinct Latin flavor it incorporates. Flamenco guitars and jazzy trumpets flow in and out of songs like "Here With Me" and a solid cover of Lionel Richie's "Hello."

The style is high diva, with majestic climaxes (the big building "Close Your Eyes") and the Internationally exotic cover of Iglesias' "El Amor," sung in its original Spanish. (The CD opens with another Iglesias tune translated into English, "Only You.") Many of the songs here are heartfelt originals that Roxanna had a hand in composing, including the first song she ever wrote, "Unforgotten," all about being stood up for her own wedding. Talk about drawing from real life.

Overall, "Exotica" is a sturdy debut and stumbles only on a too loungey cover of The Hollies' "The Air That I Breathe." If anything, I'd like to hear Roxanna step away from the safe territory she effortlessly glides throughout much of her debut. But for those looking for contenders to the woman who could be the next big Pop Diva Songstress, Roxanna is quite near the front of the pack.



   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
It's a Steal
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Having suddenly discovered what success tasted like, The Motels were more than willing to re-mine the same vein. "Little Robbers" kicked off just like its predecessor; "Where Do We Go From Here" is all but carbon copied from All Four One's "Mission of Mercy." But where "Only The Lonely" was the breakthrough ballad, this time, "Suddenly Last Summer" was the stunner and upped the ante of that first hit. Much like The Police's "Every Breath You Take," "Suddenly Last Summer" was a pitch perfect slice of radio pop. Martha Davis' sultry vocals work their magic on the hook-laden melody. It deservedly became The Motels' second (and final) top 10 hit.

The album also knocked off a second solid single with "Remember The Nights." Problem was, after the singles, "Little Robbers" was not as solid as "All Four One." There was even a groaner with "Isle of You," and some generic AOR stuff that hasn't held up so well. The best of the album can be found on The Essential Collection, much like their final album, Shock. Some really good stuff here, with Martha Davis remaining one of the 80's more charismatic female vocalists.

As for the remaster, like many of the Culture Factory re-issues, it leans toward loud and over-compressed. So if you have that old One-Way reissue from the early 2000's, don't let go of it just yet.



     
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
To That Land Uncharted
4 Out Of 5 Stars

After revisiting her career through the four volumes of "Close Up" albums, Suzanne Vega cleaves close to that feel on her "Tales From The Realm Of The Queen of Pentangles." Which, despite its unwieldy title, feels like her earlier titles in that the folkish elements are more forward and her poetry is again enigmatic and enchanting.

"I don't know about happiness but virtue's overrated" she sweetly sings on "Laying On The Hands." To that end, Vega sings about the disparity between the rich and poor ("Fools Complaint"), being careful of what you wish for ("Don't Uncork What You Can't Contain," which samples 50 Cent of all people) and the excellent "Portrait of the Knight Of The Wands." The gentleness of "Portrait," which uses minimal effects under an acoustic guitar, recalls one of Vega's greatest moments, "The Queen and The Soldier." Once again, a soldier wearily ponders his mission all while obeying with a heavy heart. Great stuff.

Given that Vega's brand of Greenwich Village folk is enjoying a kind of vogue (think Mumford and Sons or better still, the Avett Brothers), "Tales From The Realm" could come off as elder stateswoman for those whippersnappers bringing the style back. There may not be anything of a revelation here, but her seven year break has served her well, and Suzanne Vega's "Tales From The Realm" is storytelling music at its best.


   
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Throw a Handful of Glitter in the Air
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Doylestown, Pennsylvania's greatest musical export has earned a spot of artists worthy of a solid "Greatest Hits...So Far!" Initially a teen-pop sensation (as shown by the easy to digest party anthem "Get The Party Started," she ultimately broke free of that label and came to the front of female rockers with both a mature voice and viewpoint. She was soon tackling songs about family discord and political commentary.

This diversity serves her well. The tongue in cheek "So What," tackles the over the top world of stardom yet it is soon followed by the emotional masterstroke of "Glitter In The Air," The pointed "Dear Mr President" expresses her political views with help from the controversy friendly Indigo Girls. I like that Pink isn't scared of a fight, be it the fictional one she uses on an unwanted suitor in the funny "U and Ur Hand" or the confused little girl of "Family Portrait." She is a multifaceted performer and - if you've ever seen her live - dynamic on stage.

You'll find it all here. The confessional of the bonus track "F---ing Perfect" or the affirmation of "Raise Your Glass," the second of the extra songs. She does it all, from hard rocker to thoughtful. "So Far!!" is an apt title, as her latest album "The Truth About Love" carried her farther along her path to artistic validation. Just one more point; the Parental Advisory" label is warranted in this case as there are plenty of F-Bombs to annoy the ears of the sensitive.


     
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Oh My Lorde
4 Out Of 5 Stars

New Zealander Ella Yelich-O'Connor (aka, Lorde) comes on like Adele or Lana Del Rey with big beats on the debut "Pure Heroine." Hard to believe that such a big voice is coming from a teenager, but she has the depth and blue-eyed soul power of women two times her age. Match that big voice up with some hip-hop percussion, and you have some potent combinations. The whole album is a solid from start to finish, although you can't beat the singles for pop thrills.

By now, you've likely heard "Royals" and "Team," with their seductive grooves and shimmering electronic sound. This is teen-angst at its best, and Lorde plays her age to the maximum. She has the knack for teen girl melodrama like Del Ray (or to court another teen sensation, Taylor Swift), as seen in "White Teeth Teens" or the saga of high school class strata in the opening "Tennis Court."

"Baby be the class clown,
I'll be the beauty queen in tears,
It's a new art form,
Showing people how little we care."

She has mastered both the yearning want and detached view of a typical teen, and the music matches her personality. "Glory and Gore" serves as more than a song title, it's the way Lorde pushes at her material. She's self-confident, of solid voice and the will to attack her subjects head on. It takes a special kind of new songwriter to have mastered these multiple personalities the way Lorde does, and she has done so here. "Pure Heroine" keeps the music in a match to the singer, the background throb of the electronics to the self searching and expressive lyrics of her debut. There's a huge potential for growth here.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Preaching to the Choir
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Striking yet another retro pose for all things 80's synth, we have Chvrches and "The Bones Of What You Believe." Lead singer Lauren Mayberry and crew may be apeing the mopey sounds for all they can, but they do a really good job of it. They couch it all in shiny happy laptop rock, but they also have a taste for the distorted ("You Caught The Light," oddly a song that Mayberry doesn't sing) and it is easy to see why Depeche Mode chose them as tour openers overseas.

The Scottish threesome understand that a good downer goes down even better when it has this kind of sheen. On the anthem-ish "The Mother We Share," especially in the chorus:

"I'm in misery where you can seem as old as your omens
And the mother we share will never keep your proud head from falling
The way is long but you can make it easy on me
And the mother we share will never keep our cold hearts from calling."

Yup, nothing like a depressive episode that has a good beat so you can dance to it. "I'll be a thorn in your side," Mayberry sweetly sings on "Lungs." Her voice (which at times reminded me of Kate Bush) is so silky that you'll sometimes miss the bite of Chvrches lyrics. It's that combination of the frosty with the sugary that makes "The Bones of What You Believe" one of the better debuts of 2013.

Only gripe? Much like Imagine Dragons' debut, the frequent push into loudness war territory mars some of the better songs. I'm really beginning to think decently producing albums has become a lost art.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Portrait of The Artist as a Young Woman
4 Out Of 5 Stars

A natural born vocal talent, Adele debuted with a fully realized album that, despite being titled "19," is a much wiser and mature sounding album. From the first gently picked guitar that drizzles under the opening "Daydreamer" to the torchy closer "Hometwon Glory," Adele captivates you with a voice that carries a tradition of classic belters, including the likes of Dusty Springfield, to the modern Brit-Soul of Amy Winehouse.

But that is where comparisons end. There are few folks who can take songs and just outright own them, the way Adele handles Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love," or sell the songs she's written herself, like the tinkling of "First Love." Her voice is a soaring instrument unto itself, which means that the songs that work the best are the ones with the barebones arrangements. Yet given a full production number, she carries herself just fine, as she does on the international hit "Chasing Pavements." In fact, the only time things get wonky on "19" is when a more modern pop style is employed on "Tired." She's got enough charisma and chops to be able to dispense with the too busy sound of it.

Given that Adele matured into a serious force of nature when "21" appeared two years later, "19" was just the sampler. Still, as a debut album, "19" captures and folds you up in its warmth and sheer skill as a singer and songwriter. Classic pop doesn't come much finer than this.


   
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False Advertising
3 Out Of 5 Stars

I guess I finally have to own up to it; KD Lang has been making the same album for a few releases. You're getting everything you'll love about her, that gorgeous voice, the extremely tasteful arrangements and musicianship, the immaculate production. Touches of country (love that dobro) and Lang's chanteuse's ease with a lyrical lick. But you'll also miss what you really loved. "Sing It Loud" is dominated by songs that range from mid-tempo ("Sorrow Nevermore") to downright languid ("A Sleep With No Dreaming"). The more you listen, the more it becomes obvious that Lang has given up on music that has any kind of pep in its step. When you call your band Siss Boom Bang, you'd expect a little bang, maybe? Not this time.

Lang has still got the chops to take a song and just claim the thing as her own. While it mirrors the version done by Simply Red a couple decades ago, Lang's take on the Talking Heads' "Heaven" is masterful. She also nails the title track, but the point is that you're calling the album "Sing It Loud." Is it too much to ask for a little volume, a little bit of kick? The same misrepresentation happens when you call a song "Sugar Buzz." I'm not one to bemoan that she's no longer cutting "Absolute Torch and Twang," but even "Invincible Summer" threw in a few pop thrills for a listener to grab hold of and for Lang to sink her teeth into. "Sing It Loud" is a joyless, tepid affair that you've heard too many times before.


     
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A great collection of 90's singles!
4 Out Of 5 Stars

This entry into the budget priced "Icon" series features the same track listing as No Doubt's "Singles Collection - 1992 - 2003." So if you already have that set, you can pass on buying this CD and from reading the accompanying review. Otherwise, read on, gentle rocker.

Remember around 1996 and 1997, the period of the great third wave ska revival? All these southern California bands that were aping two-tone bands from the eighties - like Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris? Like most trends, it was over pretty fast. But it was also the breakthrough of "Tragic Kingdom" by No Doubt. And while the ska influenced pop of "Spiderwebs" and "Just A Girl" may have been the initial attention getters, it was the ballad that took them to the top of the charts. "Don't Speak" was a perfect slice of teenage heartbreak and sounded sweet on the radio. Quite frankly, I wasn't expecting them to go much farther after that.

Was I wrong there! While I have yet to really enjoy any of No Doubt's full length albums, their singles were guilty pleasures on the radio. So while the other one hit wonders from the same period faded away, it was No Doubt that continued to grow and create. In many ways, Gwen Stefani reminds me a lot of that other great girl rock band icon, Debbie Harry. Where No Doubt is undoubtedly a band (like Blondie), it is their front person on whom the attention is primarily focused. And like Blondie, No Doubt kept their punky ethos intact while exploring other sounds (dancehall, new wave, etc.). It made for such sublime singles like "Hella Good" and the inescapable "Hey Baby."

The inclusion of the newly recorded version of Talk Talk's "It's My Life" is a perfect match for No Doubt. It utilizes the band's melding of sounds to a pouty song that's tailor made for Gwen's voice. It puts a strong crown on No Doubt's first decade, and with the Grammy for "Underneath It All," and the successful comeback of "Push and Shove," my guess is there will be plenty of material for the inevitable second Icon of hits.


   
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Short Fuse
3 Out Of 5 Stars

I picked up on A Fine Frenzy after seeing her open a Rufus Wainwright concert a few years back. "Bomb In a Birdcage" is their (or her, since the band is basically a backdrop for Alison Sudol's piano musings) second album, and a bit of a shock after seeing her perform warm, meandering piano pop onstage. "Bomb In A Birdcage" is a band album, with electronic drumming, gleeful Regina Spektor pop, and a few of those moments that won me over in concert.

Sudol likes to mix her happiest music to her saddest moments, which make a song like "Happier" such an exquisite break-up song. She also keeps some of her folksier elements in place for "What I Wouldn't Do" and "Bird of Summer." Some of these songs not just reflect Spektor, but also make one wonder if there were a bunch of Tori Amos CD's on her bedstand. Sudol has that knack for fairy tale poetry in her music, as found in the tale of the lonely lighthouse keeper residing in "The Beacon," which also happens to be "Bomb In A Birdcage's" most beautiful songs. What's lacking here are memorable songs, even at most of them being in the pop range of three and a half minutes, little sticks. The only song with a real kick to it is "Electric Twist," which has a slippery bass line and a vocal that sounds less affected than most of the bulk of "Bomb In A Birdcage."

If you count the couple of songs I've mentioned and the fact that, when she's not trying too hard, Sudol has an expressive voice, "Bomb In a Birdcage" is an OK album. But I can't get past the fact that the sweetness of the voice I heard in concert is trying to rock ("We Stood Up") or just sounds like she's over-singing the material. What I saw and heard A Fine Frenzy do on stage suggests better is possible.


   
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Girl Powerless
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Katy Perry had her taste of fluffy pop success with "Teenage Dream," which was an insubstantial album, but loaded with inescapable pop hooks. It was a flirty, teasing album filled with songs of coming into your own ("Firework," the title track) and goofy songs about being teenaged and irresponsible ("Last Friday Night"). There was also obvious filler ("E.T."). but enough good material to compensate. Not so "Prism." Every song is synth laden and seems to ditch the goofy fun of "Teenage Dream" for songs about empowerment and being more grown-up about life.

Someone should have warned her. The girl who danced around with fruit bowls on her head is not the lady making "Prism." Only "Roar," "Walking On Air" and the lovely "By The Grace Of God" pull this CD out from the ranks of a total dud. Perry is still a gifted enough songwriter that even the filler is catchy, but unlike "Teenage Dream," the filler is quickly forgettable. Perry is holding back here. Where is the personality? She sounds restrained, the kind of pop that plenty of other pop-tarts come up with on a regular basis, where "Teenage Dream" and her debut "One of The Boys" often came of as flirty and fiery, now she just sounds like she wants to be taken seriously. "Unconditionally" calls out for love that lasts forever, but not with any spark.

The obligatory guest shot comes from Juicy J, who doesn't have the spike of Snoop Dog on the summer anthem "California Gurls." "Dark Horse" again suffers from a lack of a sense of fun. Perry just isn't a gifted enough singer to convey the kind of emotional depth that "Prism" demands of the songs. "Roar" made for high expectations, but "Prism" just doesn't measure up. It's an average album from a woman who suggested that she may have had more to offer than platitudes and easy cliches. It just sounds like she's not trying very hard.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Gett Jett
3 Out Of 5 Stars

A surprisingly supple and solid album, "Unvarnished" finds a mature Joan Jett and her long time associates, The Blackhearts, addressing life and the events that follow in a grown up world. Family, politics, personal strife are all touched upon. Even so, Jett commands a rocking album this time around, much more so than 2006's "Sinner."

Jett was affected by Superstorm Sandy, which she touches on in the opener, "Any Weather." As much a rallying cry as a discussion of the events of the devastation, it deals with its subject without turning maudlin. In fact, it kicks butt. Jett also hits a tough chord when she sings about the loss of family members in both "Fragile" and "Hard To Grow Up." She still loves rock and roll, but now she sees that love from the viewpoint of an adult.

That doesn't mean Jett gives rocking the short shrift. "TMI" (too much information) and "Reality Mentality" looks at a world where stars are viewed through a paparazzi lens 24/7, and how musical reality shows invent stars that might not be worth the effort to get to know. Coming from a woman who had to shake off the slime of over-hype to make her career count, show knows from where she preaches.

"Unvarnished" is a self assured look at this modern world, even to the point where the usually obligatory cover song is passed on. Jett wants her work to stand for itself, and for the first time in many albums, "Unvarnished" maintains a standard that Jett set for herself in her lengthy career. Not bad for someone who now sees music she's created enter a fourth decade.


   
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Don't Hate Yourself for Loving Her
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Joan Jett is a true rock and roll survivor. After the crash of The Runaways, who were often derided as some kind of stunt/joke from Kim Fowley, she rose from the ashes, got rock impresario Neil Bogart to sign her, and released "Bad Reputation." While it was the second album, "I Love Rock and Roll" to really make the breaks happen, Joan rose from the ashes and has kept her career going into the next century. This two disc Greatest Hits anthology is a super way to find out just how (and why) she never went down without a fight.

First off, she dusts off a couple of Runaways tracks, "Cherry Bomb" "School Days" and "You Drive Me Wild" show that The Runaways were perfectly capable of turning out decent rock songs, and Jett takes them over with authority. She's had a knack for doing that from the start, as her choice selection of cover songs has always shown. Here you get "Do You Wanna Touch," "Crimson and Clover," "Everyday People," "AC/DC" (the Sweet song, not the band, although her version of "Dirty Deeds" could have fit nicely), and her explosive version of a song Bruce Springsteen handed over to her, "Light Of Day." Oh yeah, and an obscure song from a band called The Arrows, "I Love Rock and Roll." OK, so we've established that Jett has eclectic tastes in rock artists, but what about her own songs?

"Why should I care about a Bad Reputation?" she barked out on her debut LP. Indeed, she rocks without giving a darn about what the world thought of her. She mixed hard rock, punk energy and glam, sometimes in the same song. There's a direct line from "Do You Wanna Touch" to "I Hate Myself for Loving You." You can't deny the kiss off of "Fake Friends." Or a subversive sense of humor by recording "Love Is All Around" (the theme to the Mary Tyler Moore show) and punking it up. Jett proves she can still cook with a pair of songs from 2006's "Sinner," one of which is a gas of a redo of The Replacements' "Androgynous."

"Greatest Hits" has 21 songs between the two CD's, so there's not much to quibble about (and I am guessing Epic records kept control as very little of those years are represented). But for an enduring talent of Joan Jett's caliber, you'll get your money's worth from this set.


   
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It's Time To Shine
4 Out Of 5 Stars

I have long had a gal-crush on Sara Hickman. Ever since seeing her on tour for her first album, "Equal Scary People," I've been a happy fan and have the opportunity to see her play several more times. Every time I think she can't keep getting better, her albums appear and keep surprising me. "Shine" comes to us with a distinct pop sheen and 10 new songs that are thoroughly enjoyable and lots of fun.

I am particularly fond of "Trouble With Boxes," in which Sara tries to understand how multidimensional people always seem to forced by misunderstanding folks try to fit you into one convenient place. As a performer who is also a philanthropist, teacher and has recorded several successful children's albums, it's obviously a somewhat personal song for her. Yet the theme is universal. No-one wants to be labeled, and that's the message. There's also the jaunty "Primitive Stuff" that asks you to hang in there when the times get tough.

The CD's first single, "Selfish Freak," is a funny look at the ex you just want to go away, then there's the flip side, the salacious and wild "My Cocky Friend."

"Don't give me lip
Let me run this.
Just get me stripped, boy
Just get me serviced
...I want to get it on."

Pretty straightforward stuff. A bit more playful is "Tasty Sweet," where the man of Sara's desires is like "sugar covered peaches, chocolate treats." Things aren't always fun and games, as the lovely ballad "You are Not Alone" and the somber "Two Winters At The Bottom" stay on the serious side. But never fear, the title track at the end of the album ends things on a happy, optimistic note. These are the kind of songs that help you understand how Sara could be named "Official State Musician of Texas" in 2010, an honor she shares with the likes of Willie Nelson (who has covered Sara's beautiful "Simply") and Lyle Lovett. "Shine" is yet another reason to give a listen to her many talents.


   
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Everything's Bigger in Texas,
3 Out Of 5 Stars


Led by the belting voice of Sharleen Spiteri, this Scottish foursome took their love of Ry Cooder (they took their name from their love of Cooder's "Paris, Texas" soundtrack) western style guitar and a penchant for writing big, bold songs, and made "Southside" the closest album they had to an American success. I saw them in 1990 at Philadelphia's legendary Trocadero and became an instant fan. (Sharleen even signed my CD.) One listen to the enigmatic "I Don't Want a Lover" and you'll wonder why these folks couldn't break it big. They were huge in Europe, enough so that you can find a full greatest hits CD.

"Southide" has several good tracks on it, like "Tell Me Why" and "Faith." Imagine the Cowboy Jinkies trying to mate with Simple Minds or U2, and you'll get a feel for what Texas was trying to accomplish. But it was the guitar of Ally McErlaine that help set Texas apart from most other bands (listen to the way he slides his notes on the instrumental title track). Or perhaps the mock-Edge guitar introduction to "Fool For Love." "Southside" may not be a great album, but it does show that Texas deserved better than their American obscurity.


   




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Better Than Shocked
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Martha Davis was allegedly working on a musical as she was composing these songs for The Motels to record. Unfortunately, neither happened. The musical was never produced and the band broke up. But these songs remain and should have firerocketed Martha into solo stardom. Who knows why, but the CD disappeared with minimal notice.

That is too bad because "Policy" is a darn good album, to my ears, better than The Motels' "Shock." I even set up a contest for this at the time I was working at radio, and still have a cassette with Martha plugging the station and the contest. There were two surefire hits on "Policy" as well. "Tell It To The Moon" and "Don't Tell Me The Time" were both great pieces of pop that got a little radio play. ("Tell It To The Moon" was also one of those hook-laden insta-hits written by pop maestro Diane Warren and will likely be a hit for someone in the future.)

The darkness that permeated The Motels' songs also comes into play here. Both "Rebecca" and "What Money Might Buy" give their femme fatales some really meaty lyrics to shape up to. Sadly, this was Martha's only solo record on a major label, though she has released two others independently and toured with new incarnations of The Motels. I am glad I have my autographed copy...and Martha, come back!


     



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Days To Remember
4 Out Of 5 Stars

The final studio album from 10,000 Maniacs with Natalie Merchant, "Our Time In Eden" catches the band peaking just before coming apart. Merchant's penchant for earnest, collegiate lyrics, backed by shimmering guitars and, on several songs, a horn section, made the album sound fuller than before. And with the song "These Are Days," the band delivered a true classic song that still can pull out memories at every listen (is it not obvious why a nostalgic TV commercial uses this as a theme song?).

Then there was "Candy Everybody Wants," a punchy social song backed with a wicked horn riff. (If you can find it, there's a live CD Single that features Michael Stipe.)

“If lust and hate is the candy,
if blood and love taste so sweet,
then give them what they want.”

Landing a decent blow against the Me Decade with a hook as catchy as candy itself, it became a modest hit for the band. Not as catchy but just as heavy in message is "I'm Not The Man," about a wrongly accused prisoner waiting on death row for the executioner. Like all their best studio albums, 10,000 Maniacs balanced the preachy with the popworthy, the poetic ("Stockton Gala Days") to the pointed ("If You Intend").

While the band did actually score a hit after Merchant left (a cover of Roxy Music's "More Than This"), she was a lynchpin to the band's complete sound. "Our Time In Eden" wrapped up a trilogy that included "Blind Man's Zoo" and "In My Tribe" to create a body of work that crystallized a certain style of female-led folk pop bands, It's very much of the early 90's, yet still resonates.



     


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