(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted…)
Mindy Smith: Long Island Shores (Vanguard)—The millions who’ve bought Carrie Underwood’s overstated girl-next-door persona are short-changing themselves if they don’t check into Smith’s far more understated version. As one might expect from her folk-identified record label, Smith comes on acoustic, soft, and pretty but seldom so much so that you want to check her collection for post-Tapestry Carol King records. Helping keep her in line are the likes of Dan Dugmore and Buddy Miller, the latter of whom has made an art of doing similar favors for his wife and Emmylou Harris and whose duet with Smith on “What If the World Stops Turning” is the highest of the album’s highlights. Rating: Four peaces of mind out of five.
Paul Stanley: Live to Win (New Door)—At first you think it doesn’t matter that Stanley’s fifty-five, that his undiminished voice and barely diminished looks, even without the Kiss makeup, qualify him to emote hard-rock banalities as if he weren’t old enough to be the grandfather of the average iPod-wearing teen. Plus, you think, his first solo album was hardly the worst album of 1978. Of course, it was hardly the best either. And, come to think of it, you can’t hum one song from it, though you played it a lot when you were sixteen (and he was twenty-seven). Odds are, though, it sounded a lot like this one, which was hardly the worst album of late 2006 but which you also won’t remember when you’re seventy-two (and he’s eighty-three). Rating: Two-and-a-half gods of drizzle out of five.
Mavis Staples: We’ll Never Turn Back (Anti-)--The combined moral and musical authority of Mavis Staples and her producer-guitarist-mandolinist Ry Cooder is so great that it’s hard to believe they’ve teamed up for a dud, but they have. Where to start? Well, for one thing, their material dates back to the genesis of the Civil Rights Movement (“Eyes On The Prize,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” etc.), and, as the biblically literate Staples no doubt knows, pouring new wine into old wineskins is always tricky business. Of course, it may be argued that at sixty-six Staples is hardly new wine, and indeed the problem here is not her singing. What really bogs the album down is that these anthems were originally conceived to accompany public protests, to be sung by and to unify crowds around a righteous cause, not to be enjoyed in the privacy of one’s home, car, or headphones. Or, to put it another way, the music is utilitarian, a means to an end rather than an end in itself, and no amount of modern production can transform into entertainment beats, melodies, and sentiments that, frankly, weren’t intended as such. Only “99 and a Half” and “My Own Eyes” come near to catchy, and even their catchiness is fairly rudimentary as catchy goes. The lyrics present another problem--namely, that they’re dated. Just as the political battleground has shifted in the last fifty years, so has its vocabulary, and no matter how much Staples thinks that referring to Hurricane Katrina makes “My Own Eyes” contemporary, her linking the suffering caused by a natural disaster to the suffering caused by George Wallace-era Southern racism only makes her seem confused. Granted, Staples doesn’t believe that the battleground has shifted. For her, the murders of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till (whose deaths she cites among others in “I’ll Be Rested”) are as symptomatic of what’s wrong with America now as they were when she was growing up. Much evidence, however, exists to the contrary. Perhaps a more accurate title would’ve been We’ll Never Move On. Rating: Three kumbayas out of five.
Starcastle: Song of Times (Prog Rock)—Like Kansas, Starcastle was from the Midwest, and, like Yes, Starcastle sounded like Yes. And in the mid-to-late ’70s, when these guys last recorded, their shimmeringly cosmic prog-rock punch was dampened by Yes’s and Kansas’s having beaten them to it. Now that they have that narrow world all to themselves, however, they bestride it like colossi. Visual bonus: jewel-box art by Renaissance’s Annie Haslam in memory of the late Gary Slater. Rating: Three-and-a-half celestine prophecies out of five.
Stars of Track and Field: Centuries Before Love and War (Wind-Up)—By naming themselves after a Belle and Sebastian song, these Oregonians have given themselves a lot to live up to. So perhaps it’s wise that they’ve hit upon an electronica-based sound that has as little in common with B&S as the melancholy mood that it conjures. Of course, electronica-based melancholy and not sounding like B&S hardly make a band unique these days, but at the moment these guys are doing it a little better than the competition. Rating: Three-and-a-half medals out of five.
Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration (Stax)--Obviously nobody who has already invested $360 in the three Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles boxes needs this two-disc, fifty-song skimming of that crop’s cream. Those, however, who passed on those collections finally get their patience rewarded. Their wallets too: the $19.99 list price means that they can now enjoy history’s second-greatest black-pop catalogue (after Motown’s) for a mere forty cents per song. And a close second it is. Motown had Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson; Stax had Otis Redding and William Bell. Motown had Mary Wells; Stax had Carla Thomas. One could go on (the Temptations or the Four Tops vs. Sam and Dave, Jr. Walker and the All Stars vs. Booker T. and the MGs, James Jamerson vs. Cropper and Dunn), and, frankly, for quality if not quantity, Stax often managed a tie if not a victory. Admittedly Stax had no match for the Supremes, but then Motown had no match for the Staple Singers. Or for Eddie Floyd (“Knock on Wood”), the Bar-Kays (“Soul Finger”) or Jean Knight (“Mr. Big Stuff”). And, in the one head-to-head show down (“Never Can Say Goodbye”), Isaac Hayes teaches young Michael Jackson why it’s important to grow up. Rating: Four-and-a-half R-E-S-P-E-C-T’s out of five.
Al Stewart: The First Album (Bedsitter Images) (Collector’s Choice)--By the time he teamed up with Alan Parsons for the glossy-coated “Year of the Cat” in 1976, this Scottish singer-songwriter with the mellow-yellow voice had already spent years disavowing this 1967 album, possibly because by 1976 he considered the orchestra that his producer had hired to set the atmospheric tone a relic of a musically Atlantian past. Stewart’s agreeing to this reissue, however, suggests that he now remembers the music more fondly, and he should. His youthfully confessional lyrics remain as charming as his acoustic picking, his orchestra is more understated than the ones hired and-or simulated by Deep Purple and the Moody Blues circa the same time, and the instrumentals “Denise at 16” and “Ivich” would not only sound at home on Sting’s recent lute projects but also improve them. Meanwhile, years before he’d name-drop Peter Lorre, Stewart, according to the blog of one Chris Ellicott, caused quite a stir by mentioning Jacqueline Bisset in “Clifton in the Rain” and, to maintain a rhyme, pronouncing her surname “Bissay”: “I was living in Clifton when Al wrote the song, and there was always raging controversy over the Bissitt/Bissay issue…. [A]rguments were always breaking out in the queue for the fish-and-chip shop. I still remember a hell of a fight outside a pub in the middle of Clifton between the Bissay and the Bissitt gangs. From what I remember, the Bissay mob got slit up a treat.” Rating: Four time passages out of five.
Al Stewart: Love Chronicles (Collector’s Choice)--Legendary for its impressively not-boring 18-minute title track and that track’s use of the “f-word’ as a gerund, this masterly 1969 folk suite is also home to the three-minute “You Should Have Listened to Al,“ the catchiest song that this gifted love chronicler ever recorded. Rating: Three-and-a-half Scots on the rocks out of five.
Sting: The Journey and the Labyrinth: The Music of John Dowland (Deutsche Grammophon)--Like many musicians with messianic tendencies, Sting often undercuts his good intentions and his music with pomposity. But in tackling the songs of John Dowland (1563-1626) with the Sarajevo-born lutenist Edin Karamazov, Sting has checked his ego in two ways: first by refusing credit for re-discovering Dowland (he admits recording the songs only after much prodding) and by willing to appear vulnerable in his struggle to do the songs justice. Because his struggle is only partly successful, listeners may want to bypass last year’s music-only Songs from the Labyrinth in favor of this two-disc set, which tells Songs’ behind-the-scenes story. In addition to a CD of Sting and Karamazov in concert (the highlight: their performing one song apiece by Robert Johnson the Elizabethan composer and Robert Johnson the American blues legend), The Journey contains a documentary DVD that, because it’s as informative as it is artful, may prove more effective than the music itself in persuading rock fans to investigate the glories of the past. Rating: Three-and-a-half dreams of the blue turtles out of five.
Switchfoot: Oh! Gravity (Columbia)—They’d never have happened without U2, with whom they share a penchant for echoey guitars and impassioned vocals. And, like U2, they’d never have happened without Jesus Christ. If the lyrics don’t evangelize, they provide clues to the band’s worldview and benefit as a result. Minus the implied spirituality, “American Dream” and “4:12” would come off like mere anti-materialism rants, “Burn Out Bright” like so much spitting into the wind. None of which would matter if those songs, like most of the rest, weren’t catchy as hell. They are. Rating: Four pence some the richer out of five.