The Brighter Side of Me Namoli Brennet
The first thing that struck me while listening to “The Brighter Side of Me” is that it’s impossible to tell the gender of the singer. The effect is a universal voice. Namoli Brennet’s singing evokes everyone from Stevie Nicks to John Mayer, at times soulful (“Maybe Tonight”), innocent (“Long Mistake”), and beautifully morose (“Sleep”). It also struck me that “Brighter Side” has been out for a year and I’d never heard it before. This wrong has now, thankfully, been righted. Brennet, who hails from Arizona, describes her music as “gender-variant indie-pop.” Though Brennet is definitely indie – she not only wrote, recorded, and produced “Brighter Side” on her own, she also played nearly all the instruments – “Brighter Side” has definite wide appeal and breakout potential. In fact, the record it made me think of most was David Grey’s “White Ladder,” which seemed to come out of nowhere in 2000 with the surprise success of the single “Babylon.” Brennet’s song “Thorn In Your Side” shares that same electronica-tinged folk-pop vibe. Other album highlights include the haunting “Ghost” and the breakup alphabet of “Long Mistake.” To listen to clips and buy CDs visit http://www.namolibrennet.com.
Judge A Book Skott Freedman (Violent Yodel Records)
Bisexual piano man Skott Freedman goes under the covers with “Judge A Book.” The record’s 12 tracks were chosen by fans via Freedman’s Web site. Freedman is at his best the further the original track falls outside of his singer/songwriter genre. Highlights include the sober rendition of Verve Pipe’s “The Freshmen” and the mellow jazz lilt of Green Day’s “Basket Case.” The record is peppered with duets, including Jill Sobule sharing the mic on her own “Soldiers of Christ” and gay country singer Mark Weigle on the tender cover of “Papa Was a Rodeo” by the Magnetic Fields. Freedman makes “Zombie” by the Cranberries into a somber, but pretty, dirge. Other songs include “Sorry for Myself” by Jann Arden and Amanda Marshall’s “I’ll Be Okay.” Freedman’s cover of “Money Changes Everything” gets off to a good, melancholy start but part way through we’re reminded that he is no Cyndi Lauper, and the song never comes close to the passion of the original. The same is true on “Every Little Kiss,” originally done by Bruce Hornsby, a stronger and more established artist. However, what Freedman lacks in vocal range and intensity he makes up for with skilled piano playing and earnestness.
Smashing the Ceiling Magdalen Hsu-Li (Chick Pop)
She’s bisexual, she’s Asian, and she’s ready for her close-up. Magdalen Hsu-Li’s “Smashing the Ceiling” may just be prophetically titled. After all, Hsu-Li’s goal is to prove that Asians can be commercially successful in the world of popular music. A shimmering pop record with a sprinkling of country and eastern music, Hsu-Li’s third release recalls the introspective songwriting of Jann Arden and Rachael Yamagata. Hsu-Li’s lyrics are positive and personal, often written in first person. Even the breakup song “All These Words” leans toward the sun and eschews self-pity. “I miss feeling free and fearless and funny and sad,” she sings, “and sometimes when you’re away I can feel all of these things.” The song “Northern Light” has a rollicking alt-country feel without the twang. The album opens with “Change the World,” a politics-as-self anthem with an eastern music influence that is both sexy and provocative. “Mary Magdalene,” with its exploration of identity through biblical themes, evokes Tori Amos. As a whole, the production on “Smashing” is top notch; Hsu-Li’s musical cohorts on this project include folks who have worked with Amos, Paula Cole and Ani Difranco.
Red John Stevens (Maverick)
I’m no fan of American Idol. Most of what I have heard from the show’s contestants is either really bad or really boring. When I heard “Red” I didn’t know John Stevens was American Idol ilk. My first impression: not bad, but not great, so what’s the catch? I might never have grown suspicious if it wasn’t for the cover of Maroon 5’s “This Love,” where Stevens changes “keep her coming every night” to “keep her happy every night.” Sure enough, Stevens isn’t old enough to buy the cigarettes and booze so pervasive in the Vegas jazz lounges his idols got their starts in. That’s not to say “Red” is bad. Actually it’s pretty good, for a 17 year old, which probably isn’t what Stevens is hoping for. He’s at his best converting contemporary pop songs like “Here, There and Everywhere” by the Beatles into jazz tunes. His stabs at standards like “I Only Have Eyes For You” belie his youth. Stevens has a voice that goes down easy and smooth, sometimes to the point of being forgettable, but never annoying. In the world of young singers styling themselves after Frank Sinatra, Stevens is going to have to get in line after guys like Michael Buble and Jamie Cullum. But “Red” shows promise that good things will come with age.
Town Feeling James William Hindle (Badman)
British singer/songwriter James William Hindle, who recently came out as gay, spins soft acoustic songs about love, longing and life on his third album “Town Feeling.” Hindle has mastered musical simplicity without skirting emotional depth. A highlight is “Birthday Candles.” “Time is hard to handle,” he sings, “I cannot let this go away.” Though “Town Feeling” lacks stylistic variation, it has a comforting consistency.
Sondheim, Etc., Etc. – Bernadette Peters Live at Carnegie Hall (The Rest of It) (Angel)
Bernadette Peters fans who’ve been waiting to hear her entire 1996 Carnegie Hall solo concert benefitting the Gay Men’s Health Crisis can finally hear “The Rest of It.” “Sondheim, Etc., Etc.” includes all the songs that didn’t make it on 1997’s Grammy-nominated “Sondheim, Etc.,” including a Pig Latin version of “We’re In the Money” and “(They Ask Me Why) I Believe In You,” a song Sondheim gave to her to sing that night.
Belladonna Daniel Lanois (Anti)
The instrumental “Belladonna” by Daniel Lanois feels like the soundtrack to an avant-garde western. Using pedal steel guitar and touching on folk, blues and rock, Lanois crafts a sonic journey that ends too soon. More than half of the tracks are under three minutes, which doesn’t leave much time to go anywhere. “Belladonna” is pretty, but incidental. Standout tracks include the haunting “Oaxaca” and the mariachi of “Agave.”
The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel Meshell Ndegeocello (Shanachie)
Meshell Ndegeocello’s “The Spirit Music Jamia” is a collaborative “spiritual groove music” project drawing on funk, jazz, Afrobeat and electronic music. Ndegeocello doesn’t sing, opting to keep the pulse on bass while notable voices like Lalah Hathaway, Cassandra Wilson, and Sabina of The Brazilian Girls take the lead. Though not for everyone, the result, like spirituality itself, is both challenging and rewarding.
Mr. A to Z Jason Mraz (Atlantic)
Pop rock cutie Jason Mraz is back with his slickly-produced second studio album “Mr. A-Z.” It’s breezy and sweet, fun but nothing too serious. Mraz may be known and loved for his quirky sense of humor, but here he comes across as more cute and geeky than funny, like on “Wordplay” and “Geek in the Pink.” Think Ben Folds crossed with John Mayer. Expect to hear Mraz on “The O.C.” and in your local American Eagle Outfitters soon.
Affirmation Solu Music featuring Kai Martin (Solu Music)
If true house music is all about the soul then “Affirmation” is a 90 minute testimony. Featuring the smooth vocals of Kai Martin, who sounds like a cross between Anita Baker and Sade, deep house duo Solu Music’s “Affirmation” is a “new kind of soul music” with roots in R&B, blues, soul, jazz and house. It’s a record that is right at home both on the dance floor or the living room as a sexy mid-tempo chill out.