WALTZ OF A GHETTO FLY
Genuine/ PIAS Recordings
Singer-musician Joseph "Amp" Fiddler has been rattling around the music industry for so long, it's rather surprising that this is his first full-length CD. Since the early 1990s, he's played with such artists as Prince, George Clinton, Brand New Heavies, and Ramsey Lewis, and Fiddler's abundant soul, jazz, and funk influences blossom on this deeply satisfying album. There's an easy summertime groove on such songs as "I Believe in You" and "Dreamin'," co-written with Raphael Saadiq, who also plays keyboards. The songs have an old soul vibe, but this isn't a retro recording. Fiddler nods to the past, but is always pushing forward to create his own sound. "Superficial" is a standout, a jazzy soul workout with Fiddler growling and drawling out syllables Sly Stone-style. He changes things up with the mostly instrumental "Possibilities," a duet with his bass-playing brother Thomas "Bubz" Fiddler, who has also played with Clinton's P-Funk All-Stars (he plays on several other tracks here as well). Just when it seems like the album will concern itself only with matters of the heart, "Love & War" arrives as a pointedly political track with Fiddler singing, "I ain't down with going to war." That's one way Fiddler flips the scripts and keeps the CD unpredictable. Another is the lovely "If You Can't Get Me Off Your Mind," which begins simply enough, until sweeping backup vocals elevate the song into something deliciously transcendent. And it's not the only time this album achieves such highs.
ONE SOUL NOW
With almost two decades of critically acclaimed alternative rock to their credit, the Toronto-based Cowboy Junkies are astute enough to stick to what they do best on their ninth studio album, the self-produced "One Soul Now." The album has a hushed tone that recalls the worn luster of the band's breakout cover of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane." This restrained, hovering mood can be both sultry (as on the sinuous blues of "From Hunting Ground to City") and deeply contemplative (as on the hypnotic ballad "Simon Keeper"). As always, the playing is deft and understated, offering a pretty, intricate frame for the band's trademark sound of Margo Timmins's lithe, emotively subdued vocals. The opening title track expands from a gentle rock ballad, carried by Timmins's crystalline vocal acrobatics, into a big, twangy rocker. "Why This One" features a lovely ascendant vocal hook, which gives way to a bit of grit and warbly, distorted guitar, while "The Stars of Our Stars" has a brighter, indie-rock spryness with a tart, playful guitar hook. While the album does not find the band breaking new ground, it again reminds how slight sounds can evoke big emotions. Cowboy Junkies play the FleetBoston Pavilion with Shawn Colvin on July 7.
Two years ago, when she debuted as Dr. Dre's protege, Truth Hurts came across as a promising vocalist still in search of an identity. Now, she has cut the good doctor loose, hooked up with singer/ songwriter/producer Raphael Saadiq, and has clearly come into her own, as this is a more confident and assured set of songs. While her debut nodded to hip-hop, this is clearly geared toward R&B. The St. Louis native has the pipes for the gamut of emotions she runs through in this tight collection. Truth moves from vulnerability to defiance to anger to tenderness as she catalogs the crazy ways of love in the modern world. Saadiq, as usual, is extremely sensitive to the singer as he surrounds her with a rich musical palette, which always serves her and never takes the focus away from her voice. "Lifetime" finds her straightening out the backbone and confronting her man's other woman and it's an affecting dramatic turn. She's sexy but not overly salacious on "Phone Sex," and on "Knock Knock" she's a lover who keeps going back to her man even though she knows better. Truth writes songs that are simple yet not simplistic, and they are filled with real feelings. With so many diva wannabes these days, it's good to hear a singer of nuance and dimension. There's not a false note in the Truth's music.
ALVIN LEE IN TENNESSEE
MY SECRET LIFE
Two English rock veterans have resurfaced with a little help from their friends. Former Ten Years After leader Alvin Lee has enlisted some of his childhood heroes -- including Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore -- to pay homage to the dawn of rockabilly. Lee wrote all the songs with Moore recording them in his home studio in Tennessee (plus playing on a few tracks) and with Memphis rock legend D.J. Fontana on drums. Tracks such as the jitterbugging "Let's Boogie" and swinging "Rock & Roll Girls" have an admirable, '50s-style purity that shows Lee has learned his lessons well. There's also some swamp blues and a fresh cover of Ten Years After's blazing "I'm Going Home" with rockabilly-inspired licks that fit this new disc. It's a welcome effort -- and so is Eric Burdon's "My Secret Life," in which Burdon is backed by a number of past and present Bonnie Raitt bandmates, including guitarist Johnnie Lee Schell, bassist Hutch Hutchinson, pianist Ivan Neville, and drummer/producer Tony Braunagel. It's a powerful, four-star record with Burdon in astonishingly fine voice as he spans some gritty R&B ("Devil Slide" is a standout) and gut-wrenching, personal ballads. He pays tribute to his own heroes in "Can't Kill the Boogieman" (which remembers John Lee Hooker) and "Jazzman," an ode to Chet Baker, Philly Joe, and Billie Holiday. Burdon wrote most of the tracks, but adds moving covers of the Talking Heads' "Heaven" and Leonard Cohen's "My Secret Life." An excellent album with some hard-earned miles on it.
It's a shame Rachael Yamagata sounds so much like Fiona Apple, because the inevitable and endless points of comparison -- Yamagata, a keyboard-pumping waif and singer of jazzy pop songs, is neither as deep nor brazen nor inspired as Apple -- diminish the newcomer's own dusky singing and artful songwriting. Happily for Yamagata, Apple is five years out from her last album with no release date in sight. And "Happenstance," Yamagata's debut full-length CD, is a gratifying fix for lovers of darkly confessional piano girls. Heartache is the order of the day: lost love, unrequited love, ill-timed love, love gone wrong, and producer John Alagia (John Mayer, Josh Kelley) has dressed up Yamagata's yearning in lush, quirky textures. One wishes her words collided with the same richness as the French horn and synthesizers on the disc's soulful opener, "Be Be Your Love." But if Yamagata's lyrics are more diary than poetry, her songs may just be what mainstream pop needs, and there are a handful among the introspective brooders that have clearly been groomed for the charts. "Worn Me Down," updated from Yamagata's 2003 EP with celestial keyboards and anthemic guitars, is a sultry pop-rocker, and the sweet, upbeat grooves of "1963" make it a radio-friendly oddity sandwiched between the desperate waltz "I'll Find a Way" and edgy, meandering "Under My Skin."