'To Whom it May Concern'
On her first album, Lisa Marie Presley clearly wants to be respected more than liked.
Elvis' only offspring describes herself as an "S.O.B." on the very first cut, sings "I'm your disease" on another and promises to "squash you relentlessly" on another.
Yowie! What's not to like?
Presley decides to let listeners into her life, behind the tabloid facade of a famous offspring with two quickie marriages to Michael Jackson and Nicolas Cage. It's not pretty. Based on the evidence here, she's a tough and troubled woman.
On her best song, "Lights Out," she sings about the family home -- that would be Graceland -- where her burial plot next to dad and the family lies ready: "Last time I was there I noticed a space left next to them there in Memphis in the damn back lawn."
Her album is bluesy rock, with an up-to-the-minute production sheen. Presley sounds more like Cher than her father, and her vocals are occasionally buttressed by double-tracking.
To her credit, she wrote everything, and it's solid stuff. Backstage vets Glen Ballard, Eric Rosse and Capitol president Andy Slater added their expertise. It would have been easy for Presley to become a pop tart, or trade more obviously on her fame. Instead, she waited until she had something to say, and says it in a solidly professional manner.
That's worthy of respect. Ultimately, though, it's not an album -- and she's not an artist -- that's easy to embrace.
'World Without Tears'
Lucinda Williams gets raw on her latest release, "World Without Tears," and frankly, I'd be resentful if she didn't.
With a painful longing imbuing each note, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more honest, revealing disc by any singer-songwriter. The Louisiana native gets under a listener's skin with each song she pens and then thrusts upon them with a ferocity that is seldom seen in her contemporaries.
From the opening track, "Fruits of My Labor," she strips down the facade of companionship, love and physical longing to its base elements -- lust, life and too much attention, but not enough when it matters.
"You don't have to prove that you matter to me constantly/I know you're the man, can't you see/I love you righteously," she sings in a clipped, staccato burst in "Righteously," with a snarling blues-tinged backing swirling behind.
She smolders, and it's telling. But there's a latent sense of longing that creeps through the other songs in this hour-long collection, a deft acknowledgment of the fact that life is not all that sweet.
In "People Talkin'," a low-key, rhythmic work that has a slow swing to it, she sings about gossip and the big damage that little words can do. It's evocative of her earlier work, particularly the 1998 watershed "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road."
Williams won't win any awards for her sunny disposition, but her writing is razorlike and piercing -- and walking away from a listen to "World Without Fear" leaves this listener scarred but smarter.
'Rainy Day Music'
There's so much to like about The Jayhawks: truly thoughtful lyrics, adroit guitar work, sunny melodies in that unmistakable, falsetto warble, and a wide smear of expert harmony. The veteran Minneapolis alt-country rockers are at their best on "Rainy Day Music," loaded with refreshingly grown-up tunes that cast a rare shaft of sunshine in a rock world currently overcast by pre-pubescent angst.
"All the Right Reasons," all ethereal melody and earthly charm, rings in the skull long after the track has passed. And "Madman," dense with acoustic guitar interplay and conga drums, showcases the band's flawless musicality. Roughly half of the record posesses the Jayhawks' rare and gentle magic. But, as there is also much about the Jayhawks to feel ambivalent, the rest is padded with blase, jangly ballads and strictly adequate midtempo rockers.
'La Revancha Del Tango'
That mesmerizing mix of tango, chillout, house and dub that you heard your favorite lounge DJ spinning or during your last extravagant boutique spree was most likely Gotan Project.
The Paris-based trio's first full length CD, "La Revancha Del Tango" was released in Europe last year and is now available in the United States.
Phillippe Cohen Solal, Eduardo Makaroff and Christophe H. Muller form the nucleus of the Gotan Project -- its name a play on the word tango. But the lineup is enhanced by the inclusion of two exiled Argentineans now living in France, pianist Gustavo Beytelmann and accordion player Nini Flores.
If you've never been a fan of tango, give this hybrid a listen. The album's standout is "Triptico," an eight-and-a-half minute opus that combines the signature tango accordion with keyboard vamps reminiscent of deep house. There's a smattering of hand percussion layered over sparkling piano; they mesh with acoustic guitar for a sound that is simply gorgeous.
Turntable cuts and scratches are now commonplace in popular music, slicing through otherwise generic R&B songs and carving an urban edge into rock tunes.
"Scratchology" explains why. It's a history lesson on the evolution of what's now called turntablism, starting with a voice-over introduction explaining how DJs create scratches.
Classic scratch-infused songs such as DJ Cash Money's "Ugly People Be Quiet" are blended with underground tracks only a hip-hop historian would know. Mixmaster Gee and the Turntable Orchestra, anyone?
The X-ecutioners then mix in modern turntablism from themselves, the Beat Junkies and masterful DJ Qbert.
The result is a cohesive package highlighting the influence of the DJ in hip-hop. Though the manic creativity of Qbert's "Razorblade Alcohol Slide" could never win radio airplay, we wouldn't have a Linkin Park without it.
While this isn't an album of X-ecutioners music, the New York-based DJ group makes the history lesson its own with expert scratches between songs and reflective, educational liner notes.
Jam band Soulive makes groovy, dancy jazz fun again -- pumping 1970s funk and hip-hop-styled bounce through an organ, guitar, drums and sometimes a clavinet.
But live CDs can be tricky. And Soulive simply can't capture the sweaty energy of its club shows on its self-titled fifth album.
There's no momentum. This collection of nine songs from five live shows last year keeps pausing right when you want it to kick into high gear.
Crowd noise is kept to a minimum, and the songs are actually short for a jam band -- most in the 6-7 minute range. "Dig It" and "Shaheed" bog down in repetitive themes that just don't work over speakers.
Overall, though, this is great jazz trapped in a poorly packaged album. The trio is at its best on extended, wild jam songs like "One In Seven" and "Turn It Out" -- both stretching over nine minutes. Hope for more of that freewheeling sound next time around.
The first cut is a road song. The second cut is a flood song. And by the time Soozie Tyrell gets to the "doo-doo-dit-dit" vocals on the penultimate tune, it's clear that she's a heartland rocker heavily influenced by the sounds of the '70s.
Which is no surprise, given that Tyrell is Bruce Springsteen's fiddle player. Her fine instrumental work tugs "White Lines" toward country, but she shows some pop savvy on her first solo album, too. "Ferdouganal" is a catchy Celtic lament, and "Ste. Genevieve" is a lovely ballad bolstered by harmony vocals from the Boss and his wife, Patti Scialfa. Bassist Tony Garnier and guitarist Larry Campbell, both from Bob Dylan's band, provide support throughout.
"White Lines" includes nothing terribly original, and yet Tyrell's assured vocals give the music a singular stamp. She doesn't sound like Juice Newton, or Bonnie Tyler, or Linda Ronstadt. But those who liked them will like this.
Listening to Uncle Tupelo's "No Depression," "Still Feel Gone," and "March 16-20, 1992," a decade after the albums were released, feels like drinking whiskey again after living on wine -- you remember why you like the bite.
With a sound that encompassed a little bit of grunge, a smattering of rock, and a whole lot of country, the albums represent a cocktail of influences that range from the grunge heroes of the 1990s to the mainstays of Nashville.
Uncle Tupelo's style was driven by melodic progression instead of riff, and it produced songs that included original acoustic tracks such as "Life Worth Living" and "Screen Door," clean country ballads like "Still Feel Gone," and thickly distorted grinds like "Whiskey Bottle."
And while the albums are a look at the formative years of two contemporary musicians -- the band's main songwriters were Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and Jay Farrar of Son Volt -- the 15 bonus tracks don't add much to the albums' rerelease. They're alternate takes to collect but not to savor.
Fans of Uncle Tupelo will have the benefit of hindsight when they listen to these recordings again. They'll see how a sound somewhere in the haze between rock and country helped mold alternative country into a recognizable genre.
But unless they've been whiskey drinkers all along, new listeners will have a hard time appreciating the songs rougher qualities.
'Climbing,' 'Nantucket Sleighride'
The cowbell may have never sounded better than on Mountain's overplayed hit "Mississippi Queen."
But the hard-charging blues-rock outfit is about more than just that one song, as the newly remastered versions of their second and third albums reveals.
"Climbing" from 1970 and the following year's "Nantucket Sleighride," display the musical range of Mountain, from the soulful instrumental of "To My Friend," to the all-out rock of "Never in My Life."
Mountain is an example of what happens when hard rock meets San Francisco psychedelia, with a plenty of blues thrown in for good measure.
Add a little cowbell here and there, and it's all good.
Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes'
Listening to "Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes" makes you glad they were found.
One track alone justifies the release of this 1968 concert featuring the Chicago blues guitar wizardry of Mike Bloomfield, accompanied by Al Kooper on keyboards.
That magical, goose-bump moment comes when a young, then unknown Johnny Winter appears on stage to perform "It's My Own Thing."
The 10-minutes of red-hot music that pours forth still smokes today, 35 years after the fact.
The performance was so good, Winter was signed to a record contract within a week after the show. It turns out, record executives made up a large part of the audience.
Now everyone can hear what they did that night.
The rest of the disc is just as enjoyable, especially when Bloomfield lets the blues spill out of his guitar.
Back in the days of vinyl, records were clearly defined and differentiated by Side A and Side B.
Take 1968's "Super Session," which has been remastered and released with four bonus tracks. Part of the charm of the original was comparing the first side -- which featured keyboardist Al Kooper along with blues guitarist Michael Bloomfield -- with the slip side -- featuring Kooper and Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame.
Now with it all running together on CD, part of the fun is gone.
Most of the music still holds up -- especially Bloomfield's work. What used to be side B sounds a little dated today, especially the cover of Bob Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry."
'Trouble in Mind'
"Trouble in Mind" is the first career retrospective of Doc Watson focusing solely on country blues.
One striking thing about it is the amazing consistency of high-quality music from 1964 through 1998 selected.
Bluegrass, country and folk influences are never far behind on such songs as "Sittin' on Top of the World," "Deep River Blues" and "Worried Blues."
No matter what year the song was recorded, the music is timeless as is Watson's relaxed vocals and impeccable guitar picking.
'Live in London'
This is the third live album of Judas Priest material to be released in the past five years (including one from former lead singer Rob Halford), so what's different enough about "Live In London" to justify spending another 20 bucks on it? For starters, there's a handful of songs from the most recent studio album, "Demolition," including the Sabbathesque "One On One." But the two best songs from that album, "Machine Man" and "Bloodsuckers' are inexplicably missing here.
More exciting are the inclusion of songs that haven't been played in years (and have never been sung by current lead vocalist Ripper Owens) such as the shout-it-out anthem "United," "Running Wild," and a nicely updated "Turbo Lover."
Another big plus is the astonishing sound quality of this show, recorded Dec. 19, 2001 at The Brixton Academy, Even on a low-budget stereo, these discs let the listener feel as if he or she is sitting in the center of the concert hall, with waves of sound flowing all around. They also include video extracts from the "Live In London" DVD.
One criticism: "Hellion/Electric Eye" is the best concert opener in the history of heavy metal, and belongs nowhere else but at the very start of a Judas Priest show, not buried deep on disc two.