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Imogen Heap, 'Sparks'
Rating: Our Rating
Nearly three years in the making, "Sparks" is an ambitious concept album from Imogen Heap. Almost all of the 14 songs find their origin in short, brief aural snippets of found sounds, audio that is almost buried in the finished form on "Sparks" but nevertheless gives the album a skittish, otherworldly feeling. Often, the record dances on the far side of elliptical: not only are the rhythms simultaneously skeletal and elastic -- sometimes they barely seem to be there -- but the melodies aren't direct, so it takes a while for this album to sink in. Sometimes, it seems like a spacier, chillier counterpart to tUnE-yArDs; it's not as dense in its arrangements or allusions but it is cerebral and worldly, refusing to take a direct route when a detour will do. As such, it sometimes walks the line between close listening and a wash of sound, but it's intriguing from whatever angle it is approached. -- Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide
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Various Artists, 'Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears Revisited'
Rating: Our Rating
As the '60s became a time of deep socio-political change and upheaval in America, the country music establishment wasted little time establishing itself as the voice of the "silent majority" who wanted to live in a quietly conservative nation (as opposed to the loudly conservative point of view that would arise in Nashville in the '80s and onward). One exception to this was Johnny Cash, who was often moved to speak out in favor of justice for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised. One of Cash's first and most powerful statements in favor of human rights was his 1964 album "Bitter Tears," a song cycle that dealt with the way Native Americans had been wronged throughout United States history, and remarkably, one of its most powerful songs actually became a hit single -- "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," drawn from the true story of the Pima Indian soldier who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II, only to face brutal racism and succumb to alcoholism after returning home. To honor the 50th anniversary of Cash's album, producer Joe Henry has assembled Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash's "Bitter Tears Revisited," a collection featuring a handful of noted folk and country artists covering the songs from Cash's landmark album. The tone of "Look Again to the Wind" is gentler and more thoughtful than Cash's original album, largely due to the artists involved -- while Cash's voice was legendarily strong and dark, the vocalists here include Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Nancy Blake, and Bill Miller, whose performances are heartfelt but less physically imposing than what Cash delivered in 1964. In addition, producer Henry has aimed for a sound more intimate and atmospheric than that of the originals, dominated by acoustic instruments and the often stellar picking of David Rawlings. But if this album is more subtle, the best work here is moving and eloquent stuff, especially Gillian Welch on the opening cut "As Long as the Grass Will Grow," Kris Kristofferson putting all of his gritty authority into "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," Rhiannon Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops sounding sweet but strong on "The Vanishing Race," and Steve Earle having a grand time dishonoring the dead on "Custer." Ultimately, "Look Again to the Wind" is more about the fine songs on "Bitter Tears" (most written by Peter LaFarge) than Johnny Cash, but these performances certainly honor the courage of Cash, who was willing to speak out for Native American rights at a time when it was an issue that barely registered in the public consciousness. The issues raised on "Bitter Tears" are still relevant, and "Look Again to the Wind" reminds us that art can still speak eloquently about the best and worst parts of the human condition, and it's well worth investigating. -- Mark Deming, All Music Guide


Tank, 'Stronger'
Rating: Our Rating
Durrell Babbs was rolling as smoothly as ever in 2014. "This Is How I Feel," his fifth album, had gone Top Ten, while the product of his collaboration with Tyrese and Ginuwine, as "TGT," debuted at number three and was Grammy-nominated for Best R&B Album. Though his adequate and sometimes brow-raising sixth album might seem fittingly titled, it's more descriptive of his career than of the content. "Stronger" itself, one of his best ballads, regards perseverance and devotion, yet "Last Ditch Attempts" would be a more descriptive title for an album with desperate expressions like "I'll come to his house and help you pack your bags" and "'Cause I'm praying now/I give to the homeless now." On "If That's What It Takes," Babbs takes it to a new level by declaring "I'll carry your baby, do that nine months of pain," like he wrote it while watching that episode of "The Cosby Show" where Dr. Huxtable has an off-the-wall dream after eating a hero sandwich. Through much of Stronger, Babbs relates how much he needs his woman, and how much she means to him, over soft and glistening slow-jam productions from the likes of Young Fyre, James "J-Doe" Smith and Eric "Bluetooth" Griggs, and Jerry "Wonda" Duplessis and Shama "Sak Pase" Joseph. The uptempo songs are highlighted by the opening "You're My Star," with Kelly Rowland present in the background, while "Dance with Me" and "I Gotta Have It" -- the latter the album's lone song about a short-term fling -- are more throwback in nature, offering light disco-funk. The relatively relaxed "Missing You," a more explicitly referential track, is a '70s Marvin Gaye homage built on a rolling, horn-accented groove with a subtle reference to "Distant Lover." It's more convincing than any of Robin Thicke's Gaye tributes. -- Andy Kellman, All Music Guide

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Smokey Robinson, 'Smokey & Friends'
Rating: Our Rating
Smokey & Friends seems like it's as much an "American Idol" judges and mentors project -- or a sequel to Randy Jackson's Music Club -- than a celebration of Smokey Robinson's career. Produced by Jackson, Smokey duets with his guests on fresh versions of popular compositions he wrote during the early '60s through the early '80s, popularized by Smokey himself -- with and without the Miracles -- or other artists, namely the Temptations and Marvin Gaye. The array of vocal matchups alternates between suitable and, yeah, peculiar. For an instance of the latter, Steven Tyler wails, screeches, and ad libs all over "You Really Got a Hold on Me" while Nicole Scherzinger, a prominent background voice, takes a reverent approach that verges on solemn. Not only is it a poor matchup with Smokey's typically sweet and steady delivery, but it's the song where the recording method -- the vocalists didn't record together -- is most obvious. Smokey gets the best results with the veteran R&B women, Ledisi ("Ooh Baby Baby") and Mary J. Blige ("Being with You"), while pairings with the likes of Elton John ("The Tracks of My Tears") and James Taylor ("Ain't That Peculiar") are livelier than expected but forgettable. The noteworthy guests aren't limited to singers. Among the backing musicians are Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, John Mayer, Cornelius Mims, Jim Keltner, and Jackson himself. The instrumental support is mostly middle-of-the-road adult contemporary R&B without any conscious attempt to sound retro. One deviation -- "Get Ready," where Smokey is joined by Gary Barlow -- slathers modern dance-pop coloring to dismal effect. Compared to the originals, or even the better covers released during the intervening years, these versions are pleasant if sterile. Had everyone recorded together, the set would have at least benefited from some unforced spontaneity. -- Andy Kellman, All Music Guide

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Dr. John, 'Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch'
Rating: Our Rating
Dr. John's "Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch" is a collection of songs by and associated with fellow New Orleanian Louis Armstrong, one of the handful cats who put jazz on the map in the early years of the 20th century. Finely arranged by trombonist and co-producer Sarah Morrow, all of these 13 tracks feature guest stars and a great band. Dr. John goes right to the heart of Armstrong's music, opening with "What a Wonderful World," with a vocal intro by the "Blind Boys of Alabama" and trumpeter Nicholas Payton as a soloist. It's an illustration of just how much he "enjoys screwing with a good song." Though the song is oft-covered, this is likely the very first time it's been done as pure NOLA funk, with drummer Herlin Riley popping all over backbeat. "Mack the Knife," with Mike Ladd and Terence Blanchard, may start with a monster syncopated jazz-funk vamp, but the seeming distance in the exchange between the two vocalists feels unbridgeable. "Tight Like This" done with a slow, Afro-Cuban groove, features with Telmary and Arturo Sandoval. Unfortunately, Dr. John is all but absent and the tune suffers for it. "I've Got the World on a String" is a swinging, bluesy duet with Bonnie Raitt, with Pancho Sanchez dropping a sweet undercurrent of conga. "Gut Bucket Blues," a punchy, swaggering funk number, features a killer horn break from Payton. "Dippermouth Blues" is a driving, fat, front-line horn number, starring James "12" Andrews, while "Sweet Hunk O' Trash" is a wonderful duet with Shemekia Copeland that recalls the good-natured back and forth that Armstrong and Billie Holiday displayed on their 1949 version. Dr. John's distorted RMI keyboard solo takes it to -- and over -- the margin. Anthony Hamilton's vocal on "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" is smooth as silk atop a soulful, contemporary jazz chart. It's followed by two selections with the McCrary Sisters. The first "That's My Home," is an easy R&B stroll with Wendell Brunious on flügelhorn. "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" is a stirring trad gospel arrrangement with Ledisi as Dr. John's duet partner. "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams" is gorgeous NOLA souled-out R&B with Blanchard and the Blind Boys of Alabama. The closer, "When You're Smiling" is a greasy second-line read with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band that sends this set out romping. Though a couple of cuts fall short of the mark, and the set may have a few too many guests, "Ske-Dat-De-Dat" is a solid tribute to Armstrong. It does take chances and almost always pulls them off thanks to Dr. John's signature blend of musical imagination, wit, and savvy cool. -- Thom Jurek, All Music Guide
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