Grace, slick

Grace Jones returns, accessibly, while CSS continues to party on

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STORM WATCH | Grace Jones returns with her first U.S. release in 22 years. ‘Hurricane’ pushes Jones into softer territory but gets the dub treatment in a double-disc package. (Photo by Lawrence Watson)

 

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

 

Let’s clarify something upfront: Hurricane is not a brand new Grace Jones album. Die-hard fans likely already have the disc, which was only available as an import … until now. Her “new” album is about to drop in the U.S. for the first time, so to give it a sort of refresher, Hurricane comes as a double disc.

We haven’t heard from Jones in a while. Her last stateside release was 1989’s Bulletproof Heart, known mostly for the num-one dance hit “Love on Top of Love.” She’s kept busy since then, just not so much on these shores.

While Hurricane may be an unfortunately timed title, the album displays a far more accessible Jones. We almost get to see into her, though not before opening with the declaration of This is my voice/my weapon of choice (“This Is”). We immediately hear her signature voice in a rap that morphs into singing.

But it’s what surrounds her voice that takes it to the next level to open strongly. A heavy bassline track is both hard and lush, filling the ears with hypnotic vibrations. This is the kind of sound you want blaring out of your speakers while at a stoplight to annoy everyone around you. She goes on about the plight of society and the travails of war, but the beat is something to get lost in, and her voice maintains a cool vibe.

But it’s with “William’s Bond” that she takes us elsewhere. A modern take on some ‘60s European mod, you expect psychedelic circles to appear. The song goes from a hip groove into a dance jam with such subtlety, you barely realize you’re moving faster along with the beat. It’s one of the best moments of musical trickery in a long time.

Jones is both burdened and blessed by her image. That iconic warrior is apropos for, say, “Warm Leatherette.” We may not want her to be soft, but when she is, it’s lovely and surprising. She pulls back on the tender “I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears),” a delicate song that floats like a feather. Here is some of that Sade-esque sound that works well for Jones. She’s so strong in appearance that I forget to look past that to see an as-impressive singer.

A similar sound happens but with some injection of energy on “Love You to Life,” a sexy tune where her voice purrs in your ears like a puma’s whispers. She knows her talents and never abuses their power.

It’s the second disc that makes this Hurricane even more attractive. It gives Hurricane the dub treatment with laid-back beats that drive each new version forward. Just don’t expect full song versions: The remixes take out a lot of vocals, but the beats are both fresh and classic. Dub fans will likely get a thrill, while others may be a little put off by the sparse remixes.

Either way, Jones reminds us that she’s not just some pop culture reference, but that she is a true talent that should be remembered for her voice as well as her look.

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BRAZILIAN WHACKS | South American band CSS may have queer members, but they are less about messages and more about rocking and dancing in ‘La Liberacion.’

It’s easy to get excited over CSS’ new album. Like LMFAO, they pride themselves on fun party music; unlike LMFAO, CSS is good. The Brazilian-based queer-centric band doesn’t try to offer overly philosophic messages, they just want to rock out and dance, and La Liberacion proves that in spades.

The album almost plays out in three acts, starting with club-ready tunes. “I Love You” sets the tone with such a hooky upbeat, it’s easy to let it play on. Heavy on synths, the song is followed up by the similarly cute and boppish “Hits Me Like a Rock.”

CSS is easy to infect the ears with adorable confections but they never insult the listener. And they drop in wonderful touches that make the sound their own. As “Rock” bounces along, the guitar drop-in is refreshing.

“City Grrrl” is probably the last title for a song you expect to start of with Spanish guitars. Once they served their purpose the song pushes into Ke$ha territory with heavy synth textures. They open with this troika of dance tunes that’s the kinda stuff you wish DJs would play all night.

They retreat a bit with “Echo of Love” and “You Could Have It All.” Both lean toward a more pop sound, but break away from the energy of the first three songs. While “Echo” displays some tropical flavors, “You Could” does lose some magic with a monotonous beat.

CSS somehow sticks to the same vibe, but goes rock ‘n’ roll in the latter part of the album. The title track is sung in Spanish and lends to the rock side of their electro-rock genre. The album shifts here into harder sounds that still move along well. They aren’t as fun as the first half, but show the band’s versatility, which only adds excitement.

Hinting at sounds of vintage Blondie and The Waitresses, “Partners in Crime” and “Red Alert” employ clever hooks and piano assaults. They rock hardest with “Ruby Eyes” and “Rhythm to the Rebels.” Even the titles sound tough. CSS morphs into a female-tinged assertive version of Green Day but don’t get too much into your face by sticking with pop stylings, although the scratchy guitars and bad-ass drums in “Rebels” push the album to it’s most intense.

They finish with “Fuck Everything” which has appropriate driving force and funny lyrics like I wanna rip my eyes out/and scream fuck everything. Who hasn’t? But CSS makes magic with their third release. At times it plays like a split personality, but remains maturely cohesive but with a youthful energy.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 9, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Bergmaniac

Streisand dazzles (as usual) on new CD of songwriters’ lyrics

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THE WAY THEY WERE | Babs has sung the lyrics of Marilyn and Alan Bergman for decades; now she has an album dedicated to the songs she and others have made famous.

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

For Barbra Streisand, releasing an album is old hat… especially when she returns to the familiar. Her new album (dropping Tuesday) — her 33rd, following 2009’s Love is the AnswerWhat Matters Most: Barbra Streisand Sings the Lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, has been on her to-do list for some time: On it, she honors her frequent collaborators, who composed the lyrics to the Yentl soundtrack, “The Way We Were” and more.

It’s almost unfair to review Streisand anymore. Her production values are top-notch and there is no denying her voice still gorgeous after 50 years. For what she does, it’s perfection. Add to that her status as a music legend, especially among gay men, and nitpicks might seem blasphemous. But regardless of what the makers of Glee think, she’s still human, and while Matters works in the usual Streisand oeuvre, she also refrains in her tone.

On the opener, the Oscar winner “The Windmills of Your Mind,” Babs lets the construction shine more than her vocal interpretation, delivering drama but still holding back. Still, her voice is solid, like a perfect wine glass: delicate but sturdy. She continues such subtlety in subsequent tracks “Solitary Moon” and “Something New in My life” (where slight hints of grit in her voice are surprisingly refreshing).

She closes the 10-track album with songs that also rely on similar structure. Face it: She’s diva enough to not mind showing off. But her touches to “I’ll Never Say Goodbye” and the title track are exquisite.

Soon into the album, though, the impact is lessened. Covering Sinatra’s “Nice ‘n’ Easy” doesn’t fit her style. Streisand is not overly sexy, but this track needed to be flirty and sultry; instead she sounds like mom singing a silly “come hither” tune in front of all my friends. Awkward!

There is a downturn in the second half as “Alone in the World” and “So Many Stars” play on. They make less of an impression and she’s less engaged with the lyrics. An Academy Award-winning actress could put a little more emotion into it.

“The Same Hello, The Same Goodbye,” though, is a floating dream, and is easily a highlight, as is “That Face” performed jazzy and playfully. Streisand even sounds less on guard than her previous tracks, more relaxed.

For diehard fans, this is Streisand at her finest: Quality production, impeccable voice, timeless tunes. For the rest, this is the same over again. With nothing to prove, I wish she’d be more daring in her music the way she’s willing to be with her films (Little Fockers, anyone?).

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 19, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Edge of glory

_sm_Judas_cover_v5-RGBLady Gaga dabbles with new sounds on the album ‘Born This Way’

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

Lady Gaga’s Born This Way can be looked at in two different ways: Either as a second chapter, or as a third. Where The Fame Monster was announced as a companion piece to her debut, The Fame, I saw it as a stand-alone album, with enough strength on its own not to rely on a predecessor. Now with her third full-length CD (yeah, third) we see the music phenomenon dabbling with her formula … but not without encountering a few bumps.

As Gaga has blitzed herself into the stratosphere of stardom, she’s finding her role as a self-help guru for the disenfranchised — “the freaks,” as she’s called herself and her “little monster” fans. The plan has worked. And while her first releases were abstract perspectives on celebrity, love and partying, here she’s direct in her message not only to her fans, but to the world. She’s on a mission to change prejudices and discrimination and she’ll do it one media onslaught at a time.

Where here sound has been straightforward dance music, Gaga has begun venturing into new territory. With touches of rock and blues, she’s resisting pigeonholing as a club diva. Gaga shows such growth in “You and I” and “Electric Chapel.” The subtlety of electric guitar punctuates the still dance-y edge of “Chapel,” but “You and I” is solid bluesy despite its Mutt Lange tendencies. That signature background chorus of Lange, mostly heard in his Def Leppard tracks, detracts from the soul of the song, but plays with its gravitas.

With the buzz of her pre-release singles — “Judas” and the title track — Gaga might have known that throwing in a few obvious hits she could get away with some textures she hasn’t pursued before. “Government Hooker” delves in darker territory, but it’s also off-putting, though as it unfolds, we hear her voice in a political stance. The song is not her greatest, but the

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PAWS THEN PLAY | Even with some growing pains, Lady Gaga expands her artistic vision into some nice maturity in ‘Born This Way.’

girl obsessed with fame is developing into a woman with eyes opening into substance.

Even with its techno-sheen, Gaga does something lovely with “Bloody Mary.” Co-written with DJ White Shadow (as are several tracks on the CD), she shows restraint with visually intense lyrics minus a turbo-charged beat. Words like We are not just art for Michelangelo / To carve he can’t rewrite the agro / Of my furied heart are degrees above what other popsters are doing and refreshing to see her developing this way.

Lots of Gaga’s appeal is in her hooks and the ease of her repetitive chants. They get stuck in your head and perhaps that’s been her plan all along. Some songs still have it (“Judas” most famously), but maybe she’s moving beyond such tricks.

While she generally succeeds lyrically and musically, she does misstep on occasion. She goes Latin again with “Americano,” but not with the sophistication demonstrated on “Alejandro.” The fast beat sounds like a throbbing headache and the chorus is too abrasive to embrace. “Heavy Metal Lover” has an earworm accompaniment, but the song mostly hangs with a 3 a.m. club beat that just drones on and on.

Gaga also gets too simple sometimes, which has its pros and cons, especially in her more empowering songs. “The Queen”(from the 22-track deluxe edition) has anthemic lyrics such as I can be the queen you need me to be / This is my chance to be the dance/ I’ve dreamed it’s happening and the beat works, but the structure lacks excitement. Even the guitar touches can’t save it. The song is really an echo of Gaga’s more popular “Edge of Glory,” another simple song, but one that works much better, even if it does recall an ‘80s confidence-inducing power track complete with, of all things, a saxophone solo by Clarence Clemons.

Gaga likely has a few more hits to come from this CD. “Bad Kids” and “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)” stand out as enjoyable treats that could score on the charts, but add little to the album’s overall package.

Artistically, she falls short of Monster, but this album is more a gateway to potentially better things. Born This Way may not be easy to swallow immediately, but time should be spent with it to explore some of its hidden parts — good and bad.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 27, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas