Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, sounds tired. Not tired in a “I didn’t sleep well last night” way, tired in a world-weary, “sadness is a monkey on my back” kind of way. Though she has a reputation as a stage-frightened recluse, she’s been the unofficial queen of the indie-folk scene since the early 90s. Unfortunately, few people outside of that hipper-than-thou circle have ever heard of her. That’s about to change with “The Greatest.” Backed by a host of legendary soul session musicians, including Al Green’s guitarist Teenie Hodges, Marshall’s sultry voice curls in smoky rings around Memphis-style guitar, sax, bass and keyboards. It is, by far, her most confident record to date. That’s not to say Marshall has pulled a Liz Phair. “The Greatest” is hardly an over-eager grab at pop stardom. It is both gloomy and light – the kind of light that seeps under the door at three a.m. from the hallway of a low-rent apartment complex, like the one Marshall calls home in New York. It is sad, so sad, but not soul crushing. “The Greatest” is, like all Cat Power records, musically simple, but not easy. “Once I wanted to be the greatest,” she sings on the title track, “two fists of solid rock with brains that could explain any feeling.” With “The Greatest” Marshall seems to be dismissing such a dream, while at the same time coming ever closer to it.
It’s been six years since we last heard from William Orbit. His last CD, 2000’s “Pieces In A Modern Style,” had him taking classical pieces, most notably Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” and adding his electronic touch. “Pieces” was critically acclaimed, and rightly so. Bringing him back to earth is his new record “Hello Waveforms,” which features his former Strange Cargo band member Laurie Mayer doing vocals on two tracks. “Waveforms” is a collection of ethereal, ambient and sometimes hypnotic electronica. But not too hypnotic. Unfortunately, “Hello Waveforms” bids your ears farewell as soon as the disc ends. There is nothing unpleasant about it, save dippy song titles like “You Know Too Much About Flying Saucers” and “Who Owns the Octopus.” Yet after listing to this disc four or five times through, not a single track has stuck with me. If subtlety was what Orbit was going for with “Hello Waveforms,” he was very successful. Hopefully his sneak attack will work better on other ears.
In My Mind
Heather Headley may not be the first Broadway star to cross over into popular music, but she one of the few to do it so successfully. “In My Mind,” Headley’s second record after 2002’s “This Is Who I Am,” proves that she is as at home on stage in “The Lion King” or “Aida” as she is singing a lush and sexy R&B set. Headley named her latest CD “In My Mind” for a reason – it’s an introspective record. Headley takes on being “the other woman” on the title track, breaking up (“The Letter”), loss (“Losing You”), love (“Am I Worth It”) and communication breakdowns (“What’s Not Being Said”). On the regret-laden “I Didn’t Mean To” Headley sings, “You’re a mother, you’re a wife, but you’re also a cheater.” Headley isn’t another R&B flavor of the month with nothing but a laundry list of superstar producers to thank. That’s not to say she doesn’t have some A-List help on “In My Mind” like Babyface, India.Arie, Lil John and Shaggy. However, these guests are just decorative icing on an already excellent cake. Headley is the real thing – a true soul singer making stylish and smart music.
Eye to the Telescope
I first heard KT Tunstall on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition. She played her songs “Other Side of the World” and “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” live in the studio. I was intrigued by her soulful voice and her ability to morph from heartfelt pop to bluesy folk. I scribbled down her name and made a mental note to check out her album. Apparently I’m not the only one to perk up my ears to the sounds of this native Scotlander. Her debut album “Eye to the Telescope” has gone double platinum in Britain where she was nominated for a Mercury Prize. Now she’s making a crack at the States. In December, Tunstall told Interview magazine, “The first two albums I bought that stick in my memory were ‘Bone Machine’ by Tom Waits and ‘Blue’ by Joni Mitchell. I still feel as if I’m trying to make these two albums have intercourse and give birth to my wonderful baby album.” Personally, I would love to hear the offspring of a Waits/Mitchell coupling. Unfortunately, “Eye to the Telescope” isn’t it. The record lacks the grit of Waits and the emotional weight of Mitchell. Still, Tunstall has great pop star potential and while her record lacks much of what came through via her in-studio performance on NPR, it’s still a pleasing listen. Fans of Sophie B. Hawkins, Dido and Sheryl Crow take note.
Ashley MacIsaac takes a large and awkward step away from his award-winning fiddle playing with his new release, “Pride.” Called “the bad boy of world music,” Nova Scotia native MacIsaac is better known for experimenting with traditional Celtic sounds than rocking out with a guitar. This rocker experiment, however, is a dismal failure. MacIsaac can’t sing, for one, and even if he could, with lyrics like, “I predict in your future some fantabulous things, and the first one is the day you walk out on that beeyatch,” who would care? “Pride” boasts lo-fi arrangements, distorted guitars and poor judgment. If “Pride” really “offers us the first real glimpse inside the mind of Ashley MacIsaac” as his press biography claims, then perhaps it should be interpreted as a cry for help.
The Soft and the Hardcore
Imagine Aimee Mann, Rickie Lee Jones and Bjork giving birth to a French girl backed by The Postal Service with splashes of Imogen Heap and you have a rough idea of what you can expect from Tender Forever’s debut, “The Soft and the Hardcore.” Tender Forever is the work of Melanie Valera, a native of France now residing in Washington. “I don’t believe that love can save the world, but I think tenderness might have a chance,” she says. On “The Soft and the Hardcore” Valera lets all of her heart hang out as she sings about crushes, being gay, wanting to ask a girl to marry her and even the joy and anxiety that comes with two sweethearts taking a shower together on “Take It Off.” Tender Forever dares you to find strength in being sensitive. “People would say maybe I’m gay, maybe I’m weird,” she sings, “but actually I just don’t care and if I’m weird I want to share.” The songs on Tender Forever’s debut feel like 12 high school love notes, sometimes more intricately folded and decorated than well composed, but always sweet and true.
Six years ago U.K. duo Goldfrapp, otherwise known as Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory, debuted with the sexy, mournful cabaret meets electronica of 2000’s “Felt Mountain.” The album was deservedly critically acclaimed and nominated for a Mercury Prize. In 2003 Goldfrapp followed up with “Black Cherry,” which paid homage to the electronica sound of the 80s – fatter bass lines, lots of digital synth sounds and faster tempos. Though more fun, it paled in comparison to their debut. This month, Goldfrapp release their third album, “Supernature,” in the states (it’s been out since August 2005 overseas). “Supernature” picks up where “Black Cherry” left off and though the new record feels more balanced than its predecessor, it still lacks the sonic nuances that begat the classic electronic torch songs of “Felt Mountain.” It’s not that Goldfrapp doesn’t do electro-pop well. They do, as album highlights like “Ooh La La” (as you’ve probably heard in a new Diet Coke commercial) and “Number 1” illustrate. But I can’t help but feel that with “Supernature” Goldfrapp is doing anything Kylie Minogue hasn’t already done, and done better.
Comfort of Strangers
Beth Orton takes it all off on her fourth album “Comfort of Strangers,” proving that some things are, in fact, better naked. Stripped down and straightforward, “Comfort” is Orton’s warmest record to date and a showcase for her songwriting skills. Not that this is her first good album. There’s a reason Orton has amassed such a dedicated following since 1996’s “Trailer Park.” But gone are the samples and beats that made her the electro-folk darling collaborating with the likes of William Orbit and The Chemical Brothers. “Comfort of Strangers” turns the musical clock back to the era of Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones. Orton sounds like a singer-songwriter all grown up, but still hip. “Comfort” is a quiet record where less is more. “I could hear rebellion rising, I could feel the stars aligning, I could see the wave rising, but I never did seem to find my way back home,” she sings on “Absinthe.” Though after hearing “Comfort of Strangers,” it’s hard to buy Orton’s claim that she’s in any way lost.
Seth Boulton is not related to Michael Bolton. For one thing, their last names are spelled differently. Also Seth has much better hair. That alone would be enough for Seth should he ever find himself on an episode of “Justify Your Life.” Thankfully he’s got more going for him as his self-released “Underground” illustrates. Hailing from North Carolina, Boulton sounds like a folksy David Bowie with splashes of Jackson Browne. What sets Boulton apart from other sensitive dudes strumming an acoustic guitar is his pairing with North Carolina cellist Nicolette Emanuelle. Her accompaniment adds just the right touch to each piece, often acting as counterweight to Boulton’s up-tempo strumming. This is especially evident on the self-effacing “I’m A Loser” and the toe-tapping album opener “Dance With Me Down.” Rumor has it Bouton and Emanuelle put on a heck of a live show. Unfortunately, they’re not heading to Michigan any time soon, but if you’re ever in NC, check them out. Listen for yourself and buy “Underground” at www.sethboulton.com or go to Boulton’s MySpace page at www.myspace.com/sethboulton where you can download the non-album track “Somebody’s Dream.”
The Detroit boys who brought us two of the most infectious songs of 2003, “Gay Bar” and “Danger! High Voltage,” are back with “Senor Smoke.” Though the record has been out since early 2005 in the U.K. it’s finally making its way stateside. For E6 fans who have been pacing the floor, unwilling to shell out $30 to buy an import CD of their fave Detroit band, “Smoke” is worth the wait. E6 haven’t lost any of their urge to rock or sense of humor, though admittedly the dick and vibrator jokes (“Bite Me” and “Vibrator” respectively) get old quickly. But E6’s sophomore release boasts more than just great dance rock and sophmoric humor. They get serious, kind of, on songs like “Jimmy Carter,” which has a Crash Test Dummies feel. “And there’s a plague of locusts upon us and there’s a nightmare in the swarm, and there’s a lion out in the desert slouching toward Bethleham to be born again,” Dick Valentine sings, adding, “Backstreet’s back, all right.” Other highlights include the infectious “Dance Epidemic” and a cover of Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga.” By the way, for those wondering about the album’s title, it’s a reference to Detroit Tiger’s pitcher Aurelio Lopez, circa 1984.