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George Michael, ‘Symphonica’
Those personal woes, the drugs, the health problems – the toll all that’s taken on George Michael’s voice must be immense, right? Wrong. Though “Symphonica” is the pop star’s first release since 2004’s “Patience,” Michael sounds just about as pristinely crisp as he did during his ’80s heyday. And it’s surprising – something this live disc, a culmination from a series of recent orchestral performances, is not. Given that his talent hasn’t waned, that his voice still expresses passion, soul and beguiling tenderness, it’s a frustrating outing. Why this, and why now? And why so snoozy? For the most part, “Symphonica” is the middle-aged covers-album revival you predict from a bygone fixture – it reminds you Michael’s still kicking around, but with lesser-versions of classics like “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Feeling Good” on the bill, it’s got the edginess of a spoon. It drags and drags – it needs a jolt, some drama – and then you get to “One More Try,” Michael’s hit ballad, and while it’s true he hasn’t lost his touch, it still begs that same question: Why? The original is still superior. For a “comeback” album, “Symphonica” doesn’t give you much to come back to. Grade: C
Nickel Creek, ‘A Dotted Line’
Bluegrass-benders Nickel Creek pick up where they left off a whole nine years ago with “A Dotted Line,” their first release since “Why Should the Fire Die?” and the indefinite hiatus they went on thereafter. With the countrified rollick of “21st of May,” and the beautiful ballad-building of the harmonious “Love of Mine,” the three-piece folkies ease back into it almost as safely as possible with the same contemporary fiddlin’, mandolin-pickin’ sound they distinctively made their own – and who’s gonna blame them for that? It ain’t broke; don’t fix it. “Hayloft,” a hardcore folk-out cover of the Mother Mother song that’s gotta be the most wildly amusing moment of their oeuvre, is a barn burner that’s rowdy enough to actually burn down a barn. It’s on fire. And if that doesn’t make you glad to have them back, hear Chris Thile inspire your rebirth with “Rest of My Life” – that chord progression is really something, isn’t it? – and the rocking Fleetwood Mac-ish “Destination,” a plucky kiss-off to the past fiercely sung by the trio’s sole female, Sara Watkins. “A Dotted Line” doesn’t necessarily take Nickel Creek to new heights; instead, it’s exactly what its title suggests: a line of dots taking you back to their brilliant beginnings. Grade: B+
Christina Perri, ‘head or heart’
Christina Perri’s poor heart – it’s a wonder it’s still beating. That thing has been through the wringer. First some guy takes it and puts it in a jar, and now this: “head or heart,” the stinging, burning result of more brokenheartedness. So we have “I Don’t Wanna Break,” a doomed love song, and “Human,” a declaration of her … humanness. They’re both emo-pop perfection, rendered with memorable melodies and lyrical sophistication; after her disappointing debut, “lovestrong,” this is major progress. If you can just overlook the cha-cha-chas on “Lonely Child,” you’ll have a hard time disagreeing.
So in-your-face with its hip-hop infused dance-pop that it’s as nauseating as it is ear-rapey, there are few good things to be said about Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan’s first full-length. But here goes: a ballad (a ballad?!), “Neon Love,” portrays a new maturity lacking from their EP debut. “Drifter,” catchy if trite, and “Tidal,” a sleek, not-obnoxious Nelly Furtado-like anthem, avoid being as disposable as the rest of “Pulses.” And even if their sound reminds you of Black Eyed Peas, it’s not Black Eyed Peas, so, you know, that’s good.