Baby got back

Posted on 31 Aug 2006 at 5:41pm
By Gilbert Garcia – Pop Music Critic

Christina’s still beautiful on latest retro excursion



Sizzling siren: Aguilera revives the look of a blonde bombshell and the voice of an old soul.

Christina Aguilera
“Back to Basics”
RCA

Even if she wasn’t an amazing vocalist, Christina Aguilera would be a pop star anyway. A long life in show biz, a tart sexiness and a killer bod would have guaranteed that. But Aguilera is the real deal a singer whose talent merits the attention she’s won.

Though critics have been slow to embrace the her pop opus, it’s increasingly clear that Aguilera is more than just a cute stand-in. On her latest, “Back to Basics,” the singer takes a daring step not only by releasing a double album but by taking her material back to the real old-school, emulating the jazzy sounds of ’30s, and ’40s.

Astute fans know that the R&B-as-jazz sound was done to almost no response in the early part of the decade, and only occasionally has the approach resurfaced. In light of this, it would seem crazy for a star of Aguilera’s caliber to put her eggs in this retro basket. That’s exactly where Christina’s particular talents turn conventional wisdom on its head.

“Back to Basics” might have more of a pop edge than the usual jazz throwback, but when Aguilera belts out the tunes, very little can go wrong.

Of the two discs of “Back to Basics,” the first contains most of the flash including the album’s title track, and the bluesy-fiery “Makes Me Wanna Pray.” Ballads are well represented by the piano and string driven “Understand.” And though “Back to Basics” overflows with classy style, Aguilera makes a point of name-checking her previous work with the jumping sax-sampling “Still Dirrty.”

If the first disc is the more smoldering, the second contains better-crafted tunes. Credit surely goes to queer producer and longtime collaborator Linda Perry, who shares songwriting credits for the second batch. Standouts here include the boogie-woogie “Candyman” and the simmering stride-piano ballad “Mercy on Me.”

For all its highlights, “Back to Basics” isn’t perfect. At 22 tracks in more than an hour, this record should have been trimmed back. While the jazz theme is certainly creative, did it really need to be the album’s entire theme? Legions of diehard Aguilera fans will no doubt pour over each and every vocal somersault with meticulous devotion. If that means that faux stars like Ashlee sell fewer records in the end, then good.



Various
“Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” Soundtrack
Verve/Universal

Between his dense lyrics, thick synth-driven music and his universally glum outlook, iconic Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen has never been easy to get into. After hearing the artists on the recently released soundtrack for the Cohen documentary “I’m Your Man,” it’s easy to remember why the often-forgotten Cohen is such a treasure.

On live recordings taken from a 2005 Cohen tribute, artists from U2 to Nick Cave to Rufus Wainwright breathe a new spirit into a universally gorgeous set of songs. Notable highlights include the Martha Wainwright’s opening take on “Tower of Song,” Beth Orton’s “Sisters of Mercy” and a Rufus Wainwright rendition of “Everybody Knows.” But nothing on this album comes close to Antony, who delivers a version of “If It Be Your Will” that will bring tears to your eyes.



Various
“Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited”
Astralwerks

French pop icon Serge Gainsbourg never made a name for himself on this side of the Atlantic. Judging by the artists he’s influenced, it’s our loss.

Drawing on names as diverse as Tricky, Placebo and Cat Power, this recent Verve compilation gives Gainsbourg’s ’60s and ’70s creations a new life as modern rock and dance tracks.

From Portishead’s dramatic trip-hop to Michael Stipe’s minimalist tones and Placebo vocalist Brian Molko’s swirling rock renditions, there’s a lot to be unearthed on this obscure tribute. Clever, biting and occasionally just gorgeous, “Gainsbourg Revisited” contains the smartest pop you’ll hear all year.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, August 25, 2006.

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