Music Reviews: The Latest From Jessie Ware, Aretha Franklin, Annie Lennox and More

PHOTO: Jessie Ware performs on stage at St John-at-Hackney Church, Oct. 2, 2014, in London.Gus Stewart/Redferns/Getty Images
Jessie Ware performs on stage at St John-at-Hackney Church, Oct. 2, 2014, in London.

intro: This week, buzz-bin favorite Jessie Ware offers up her sophomore album, Aretha Franklin covers classics recorded by other divas, Annie Lennox takes a trip to the past and covers some of her favorites, Neil Diamond continues to return to his roots, Primus gets a “Golden Ticket” and Bush continue their reunion in style. It’s another busy week with a lot of music to explore.

quicklist: 1 title: Jessie Ware’s “Tough Love” (Deluxe) ****1/2 text: British singer Jessie Ware follows up her lush, critically acclaimed album “Devotion” with “Tough Love,” offering up more of the smooth chill-flavored R&B that made that album soar. Some fans of her debut may be slightly turned off by this offering’s more overtly radio-ready appeal, but Ware offers up her own uniquely relaxed and confident delivery making this album a slow-burner. But her first album was like that as well. I had it for months before I found myself listening to “Wildest Moments” on repeat at an addictive level. The title-track, ”You & I (Forever)” and other tracks throughout all have that potential. At first listen, they may breeze by you. By the tenth listen they will be indelible slices of musical magic.

Ware somehow makes pop advances without showing off or being too forward. Even when she is singing over a synth-heavy dance beat, she has the subtlety and approach of a supper club jazz singer. She obviously has the skill to do vocal acrobatics but she never goes above what is exactly needed. This is one of the least flashy pop albums of the year where vocal skill takes center stage. That makes “Tough Love” a rare beast.

Ware still has a growing audience. “Devotion” probably played most to music critics and underground people in the know, especially in the U.S. “Tough Love” is positioned to be a bigger break and should be checked out by fans of artists like Adele and Florence + The Machine. The thing is, Ware’s approach is quieter and more nuanced than those artists. In this attention-grabbing world, this means that this record is likely to be unfortunately overlooked by some. But give it a chance. It is a beautifully crafted piece of work.

The deluxe edition of the album comes packaged with four bonus tracks, all of which add to the set’s overall mood.

Focus Tracks:

“Champagne Kisses” This bright track is a single waiting to happen, encapsulating everything that Ware does best. It’s a love ballad with a smooth, swelling chorus.

“Tough Love” This opening title-track is the current single and it has a dream-like, chilled feeling that sounds modern, while recalling a classic sound of the past. This is the kind of pop that used to flood the radio waves.

“Sweetest Song” Ware stands out because she and her producers always combine edgier sonic elements with more traditional fare. “Sweetest Song” has some glitchy production, yet sounds like it would fit in easily with a modern R&B sound. She’s someone pushing pop and R&B forward.

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quicklist: 2 title: Aretha Franklin’s “Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics.” **1/2 text: There really is very little point to Aretha Franklin’s latest album where she sings great “diva” songs made famous by other singers. Her voice is still in decent shape, but she cannot sing “At Last” with quite the same power as Etta James did and her reading of Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” pales when compared with the original. The problem may be that for the most part, Franklin’s arrangements sound very much like the originals. Her jazzed-up reading of the Prince-penned, Sinead O’Connor classic “Nothing Compares 2 U” stands as one of the only key outliers. The same goes for the reggae reading of Alicia Keys’ “No One.” While these do add a little spice to the mix, they still don’t allow Aretha to make the songs her own.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a listenable album, but Franklin isn’t about to outdo or out-perform the original sources. In covering iconic songs that were iconic for other people, she’s set herself up for failure. Even if her readings were perfect, I suspect that would be the case since the arrangements for the most part are somewhat static recreations with a few minor changes.

This album is little more than a momentary fascination. A collection of new songs, original to her would serve Aretha better.

Focus Tracks:

“I’m Every Woman”/ “Respect” Not only does Aretha cover Chaka Khan’s classic, simultaneously also paying tribute to Whitney Houston, she also incorporates the Otis Redding-penned track that has become her signature. When originally covering Redding, she changed the meaning of “Respect” and made it undeniably hers. I wish this album had more radical reinventions of that type.

“Rolling In The Deep” While this isn’t as strong as Adele’s original, it still stands as a highlight and being included as a “classic diva” when being judged by the queen of the “divas” is an honor for someone so young. And yes, Adele is a classic.

“Midnight Train To Georgia" A fitting tribute to Gladys Knight, Franklin performs this song well.

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quicklist: 3 title: Annie Lennox’s “Nostalgia” ***1/2 text: Like Aretha Franklin’s latest album, Annie Lennox’s latest is a collection of covers, but Lennox gets some things right that Franklin got wrong. Lennox is a seasoned cover artist. Her post-Eurythmics career is littered with readings of others’ work and she always puts her own spin on things. Yes, she covers Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind,” and yes, that is just as iconic a song as any on Franklin’s record, but the arrangement allows her to put her own stamp on it. Lennox chooses standards here that have been done countless ways before by countless other artists, but she puts her own soulful energy into each one. She can’t growl and holler quite like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins on her reading of “I Put A Spell On You,” so she sings it in her own voice. Similarly, she turns Gershwin’s “Summertime” into something chillingly ethereal. Franklin’s mistake was choosing songs that were too close to her own material, which in effect accidentally nullified the exercise.

As with Franklin, Lennox would have probably been slightly better served offering up originals, but this is still the proper way to do a collection of covers. She does hit some odd points. The frightening lynching imagery of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” doesn’t quite have the same impact when sung by Lennox, even if she does attempt to give the song the gravity it deserves.

“Nostalgia” still wins in the long run, showing Lennox in top form putting her own spin on well-worn songs from the past.

Focus Tracks:

“Summertime” As stated above, Lennox’s reading of this song taps into an ominously beautiful undercurrent.

“Mood Indigo” Lennox’s reading of this jazz standard is interesting partly because the electric guitar that is chording throughout has a vaguely ragged ska-influenced tone, while maintaining the core of the song. Lennox sings the blues quite convincingly.

“I Put A Spell On You” What stands out most on her reading of this classic is the clear, bold tone of her voice. She brings a demanding soulfulness to the track.

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quicklist: 4 title: Neil Diamond’s “Melody Road” ***1/2 text: Since teaming up with Rick Rubin to record 2005’s “12 Songs,” Neil Diamond has returned to his roots as an acoustic-guitar troubadour. Gone is the flashy cheeseball schmaltz of the Neil Diamond of the eighties who gave us hits like “America” and “Heartlight” focusing more on Diamond in the classic writer mode. Now Don Was and Jacknife Lee are behind the boards and like on the albums Diamond made with Rubin, he is returned to his classic song-writing roots. Sure, there is a level of sentimentality still present, but no more so than was present in his early career. This is the same guy who wrote “I’m A Believer” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” for the Monkees. And it’s easy to imagine songs like the title-track or the sweet love story of “Seongah & Jimmy” to be in the older sixties-pop vein of songwriting. Diamond, after all is one of the few Brill Building superstars still standing and like Carole King, he is one of the timeless holders of the traditions that came with that group of writers.

Diamond also spends much of the album in ballad mode, but it is a rich area for him. With different guidance, he would have made these more syrupy. Listen to his “lite-radio” output from the seventies and eighties. In comparison, in execution, these songs have more of a timeless approach.

At the same time, there are hints of the past. The rev-up in “First Time” is no doubt purposely meant to recall the rev-up in “Sweet Caroline,” but these bits of nostalgia don’t hurt. Diamond still has a surprising number of new quirks to explore, so evoking memories of the past merely harmlessly points out his legacy.

“Melody Road” is a potent record, showing a classic songwriter, reassuringly still in decent form. One gets the feeling that Diamond still has a stack of albums like this ahead of him.

Focus Tracks:

“First Time” The song begins playing to his folky roots before bursting into a bright sing-along chorus.

“Seongah & Jimmy” A classic, epic love story with a chorus that vaguely recalls the lift of Them’s “Here Comes The Night”

“Alone At The Ball” Diamond’s forte at this point is morphing determined-sounding riffs into anthemic, upbeat gold.

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quicklist: 5 title: Primus’ “Primus & The Chocolate Factory With The Fungi Ensemble” ***1/2 text: This is one of the strangest collections you are likely to hear all year. If you’ve read the title, it probably is exactly the record you are expecting.

Primus, most famous for the theme to “South Park” and for their mid-nineties hit “Winona’s Big, Brown Beaver,” have reinterpreted the music used in the 1971 movie “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory,” based on Roald Dahl’s twisted classic “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory.” If there’s ever a movie whose legacy has intrigued me, it is that one. Les Claypool and company give these songs the darker readings they deserve, evoking an uneasy sense of terror throughout. And the “Oompa Loompa” rhythm heard throughout the set seems to suit Primus better than most other bands. The only other artist I can think of who would treat this exercise with equal care is probably Tom Waits, and there is an ominous quality throughout that recalls Waits’ recent work.

The bottom line, this is a gleefully demented reading of this material. But if you know the material, it seems more than appropriate. Another band might have sugarcoated these songs without giving them the madcap delivery they demand.

Focus Tracks:

“Pure Imagination” Sure the vocals here sound a bit like the work of a Muppet but Primus’ reading of this theme is full of a dark sense of whimsy. It also sounds rather warped and psychedelic. They also bring a vaguely System Of A Down-like energy to the song.

“Candy Man” I don’t think this song has ever received a more pleasurably unsettling reading.

“Oompa Agustus” / “Oompa Veruca” / “Oompa Violet” / “Oompa TV” The band handles the signature Oompa Loompa theme with style.

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quicklist: 6 title: Bush’s “Man On The Run” (Deluxe) **** text: Back in the nineties, too many people accused Bush of aping Nirvana’s sound upon the release of “Sixteen Stone.” Now with nuanced ears, those accusations seem utterly ridiculous, especially since both STP and Bush have built unique musical legacies of their own.

Bush’s output has been varied from excellent to spotty. “Sixteen Stone” plays really well, while its Steve Albini-helmed follow-up, “Razorblade Suitcase” has its share of classic moments while also offering a few bits of uneven songwriting. By the time “The Science Of Things” had emerged, the band had spiked their grungy sound with some slick electronic touches, before returning to their roots on the excellent 2001 album “Golden State.” “Golden State” is forgotten in many circles, but a listen to “Headful Of Ghosts” and “Superman” should remind listeners that that album equals their debut in its approach and its level of depth. After it inexplicably failed to reach the audience that had appreciated the previous records, the band fell apart, with leader Gavin Rossdale joining forces with Helmet’s Page Hamilton for the band Institute and later releasing "Wanderlust.”

In 2011, Rossdale reunited once again with original Bush drummer Robin Goodridge and reformed Bush with Helmet/Orange 9mm member Chris Traynor (who along with also being in Institute was touring member of Bush during the promotion of “Golden State”) and new bassist Corey Britz. The band released an album, “The Sea Of Memories” and their single, “The Sound Of Winter” positively fit in with the band’s earlier hits.

“Man On The Run” proves that the reunion wasn’t a one-off fluke and it shows the band at even fuller strength. This time, the band rightfully trades off producer Bob Rock, who helmed “The Sea Of Memories” and the limp “Wanderlust” for “Sound City” fixture Nick Rasculenecz, who produced nine of the deluxe edition’s 14 tracks, giving the band a suited level of power. Here, Rossdale and his crew recall all of their strengths while still moving forward, creating a better, more satisfying record than their appealing comeback. Rossdale seems more focused than ever, as if he knows exactly the kinds of records he wants to make. After hitting the wall a couple of times, it is evident that Bush have a brighter future than once expected. Unlike his wife, Gwen Stefani, Rossdale is not going pop. He tried that and it didn’t really work out. He’s sticking to what he knows works and this album plays almost as well as “Sixteen Stone” and “Golden State.” Let’s hope it connects with the audience it deserves.

Focus Tracks:

“Man On The Run” The title-track is a full-blown rock song in the vein of the band’s earlier material and yet what secures it and pushes it above the rest is the few eerie electronic notes that are added as accents during the verses. It’s a great, well-executed song with a great deal of lift.

“Loneliness Is A Killer” Traynor’s Helmet past is heard in this song’s riffing, even as the song gets a few electronic tweaks. The track has an elastic quality as it bounces seamlessly from verse to chorus.

“Dangerous Love” This is another potential single anchored by a powerful bassline and Goodridge’s command of the drum-kit. Rossdale’s chorus also perfectly caps the song’s pop appeal while keeping its rock core.

Next Week: Taylor Swift, Yusuf (Cat Stevens) and more!

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